Topkapi (1964) Directed by Jules Dassin. Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley, Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley (119 min).
An emerald studded dagger in an Istanbul palace museum proves an overwhelming temptation for a sultry jewel thief. This frothy yet suspenseful caper, shimmering with 1960s glam and skillfully adapted from Eric Ambler’s novel, has inspired countless imitations. Ustinov won an Oscar for his jittery conspirator.
Topkapi was based on Eric Ambler’s novel The Light of Day. Ambler was a prolific writer of thrillers, several of which became well-known films, including The Mask of Dimitrios and Journey into Fear. Many of his works involved amateurs becoming involved with professional spies, or in this case, criminals. The plot and structure of The Light of Day were followed quite closely in Monja Danischewsky’s screenplay. Surprisingly, the novel is told in the first person by the hapless Arthur Simpson, and it is clearly his story. The glamorous master criminals played by Melina Mercouri and Maximilian Schell are decidedly minor characters in the book. Simpson, and therefore the reader, doesn’t even realize there is a plot to rob the palace until about the last 50 pages, unlike the film, in which the prize is revealed at once.
Much as last week’s film, The Lady From Shanghai, came into being because of the opportunity to team Orson Welles with his ex-wife, the beautiful screen goddess Rita Hayworth, so Topkapi seems to have been inspired so director Jules Dassin could blend his two greatest successes, the French crime procedural Rififi and the role that made his wife into an international sex symbol, Never on Sunday.
Dassin made classic film noirs on location in three great cities, New York (The Naked City) London (Night and the City with Richard Widmark) and Rififi in Paris. He was born in 1911 and died at the age of 96 in 2008. He grew up in Manhattan and the Bronx, and worked as an actor, then a director and writer in the Yiddish theater. He began in radio, directed a Broadway flop and then got a contract in Hollywood, where he was the assistant director on Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith. He directed a short, The Tell-Tale Heart, which TCM shows from time to time, and this led to him getting a job directing feature films.
His first film after liberation from the confines of a studio contract at MGM was a raw and sadistic prison drama, Brute Force which starred a young Burt Lancaster. The atmospheric photography was an effort to fuse expressionism with the kind of documentary realism he would tackle in his next film, The Naked City, filmed on location in New York City. Albert Maltz wrote The Naked City and became one of the Hollywood Ten, going to jail rather than name names before HUAC. Dassin was at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival when he learned he had been named before the committee by director Edward Dmytryk, who testified Dassin had been a member of the Communist party in the 1930s. Dassin left the United States for France in 1953, and never returned to live in the US.
Melina Mercouri was born in Athens, Greece, in 1923. Her father was a prominent politician, and objected to her choosing the stage as a career at the age of 17. Her first film, Stella, was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival, and it was there that she met Jules Dassin. It was a momentous meeting for the couple, each of whom was married at the time to someone else. Before long they were living together, and Dassin dedicated his career to Mercouri. “Julie insisted that I must make films with other directors, but he did not like to make any without me. His point was that no relationship could survive long separations…I suffered terrible jealousies at the thought of his making a film without me. I don’t like his working with other women. Director-actress relationships are by nature too intimate” (132 Mercouri).
Dassin and Mercouri
In 1960 she shared a Best Actress Award at Cannes for her role as the exuberant prostitute in Never On Sunday, a role for which she was also Oscar nominated. The film became an international hit, popularizing Greek bouzouki music, thanks to its popular theme song. Mercouri became quite devoted to her character. “I loved her independence, her sense of friendship, her intense need for people to be happy. I loved her Sundays at home. We had done some research in Notaras Street, the red light district of Piraeus. The girls received us graciously and in the most bourgeois manner. There was tea, little cakes and polite conversation. They liked me…with Illya I became the mascot of the whores of the world. I received letters from everywhere thanking me for portraying their profession with dignity”(142 Mercouri).
Of Topkapi, she wrote, “Julie, as a film maker is slightly schizophrenic. He believes that films are valid when they teach, when they uplift, when they protest. At the same time, he loves to hear an audience laugh. He enjoys making films whose sole purpose is to entertain, but then later gets embarrassed about it. This doesn’t sit well with me at all. We’ve even had sharp words about it, and I made long speeches about entertainment being a social contribution.” But, she confessed did not enjoy making the film, not relenting even in the face of its great success (161 Mercouri).
Mercouri was beginning to lose interest in acting by the time of Topkapi, “The cinema wants young people. I didn’t see myself clinging to the cinema until the last possible moment. I wanted a graceful exit” (Mercouri 162). She had become an ardent anti-Fascist, and lost her Greek citizenship in 1967, after campaigning against the ruling junta in Greece. She spent most of her exile in Paris, returning to Greece after the fall of the government she had protested against. In 1977 she became a Parliament member, ironically from Piraeus, the city of her greatest cinematic triumph in Never on Sunday. She later became culture minister, although she was defeated in her bid to become the mayor of Athens. Dassin and Mercouri remained married until her death in 1994.
Peter Ustinov was an actor, director, playwright, novelist and screenwriter. A versatile character actor, he was “an accomplished actor, a literate author, a cultivated wit and a delightful conversationalist and raconteur of TV talk shows” (Katz 1407). He had previously won an Oscar for Spartacus, and surprisingly had even less to say about making Topkapi than Mercouri did in his autobiography. “I did the film Topkapi in Turkey and Greece, with a little of it in France. It was directed by Jules Dassin, a fine meticulous director with a great sense of humor, who dedicated his career to his wife, Melina Mercouri. It is no reflection on her to suggest that perhaps he could have had a rather more remarkable career if he had not dedicated himself so devotedly to her service” (Ustinov 326). This seems rather ungrateful, considering he won an Oscar for his role in Topkapi, about which he said dismissively, “Oh, yes, I was reaching the age of compensation” (Ustinov 327).
In another interview, he amends this statement, “I have a special affection for Topkapi. The character is so absurd. I love the idea of a man who aims low and misses” (Thomas 151).
Robert von Dassanowsky, in his entertaining and provocative paper locates Topkapi’s heroine, Elizabeth Lipp, within a unique cultural moment. The sexual liberation occasioned by the widespread use of the birth control pill changed the culture as well as female images in the movies. Although these opinionated, risk-taking heroines could be said to have originated in some of the 1950s films of Alfred Hitchcock, North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief (played by Eva Marie Saint and Grace Kelly, respectively) the female as spy, secret agent and criminal mastermind owes everything to the James Bond films of the 1960s. Beginning with Doctor No in 1962, these films showed women as objects of sexual desire, but also as capable of participating in the hero’s mission as something other than wife or girlfriend.
“Like the spy film, which provided a release valve for the pressures of the cold war with its update of the knight-hero as playboy, so the caper film glamorizes crime as a stylish adventure, complete with fashion, romance and sex, to function as vicarious escape from the hypocritical structures of consumerist capitalism and the institutionalized heterosexual relationship” (von Dassanowsky). These films completely restructured a major provision of the Hollywood Production Code, which said in effect: “Crime mustn’t pay!” The rebelliousness of the 1960s was encapsulated by the enjoyable films which said there was no difference between enforcing the law or violating it…as long as it was fun!
Topkapi seems to have transgressed a significant boundary. Elizabeth Lipp may very well be the first female criminal mastermind of the movies. The Light of Day was narrated by Arthur Simpson, but Topkapi is Elizabeth Lipp’s story. She speaks directly to the camera, and swoons over her passion, emeralds. They are “dazzling, flawless and warm” which might be used to describe her, as well. She is always in charge of the operation, because she knows how to delegate, and she knows how to use her charms. And nobody questions her authority, as she seems the natural leader of this rather motley crew of criminals…although amateur criminals, with the exception of her colleague, mentor and lover, Mr. Harper.
She calls herself—jokingly?—a nymphomaniac and her powers of persuasion are used on every character actor, as well as the other half of the romantic couple, played by Maximillian Schell. He seems a little less interested in sex than the robbery, unless Miss Lipp really focuses on him. But, she is never kittenish or coy, and Mercouri, with her deep voice and somewhat masculine appearance yields to no man. A passion for jewels is well within the acceptable female sphere of desire, although, these, threateningly, are embedded in a curved dagger, a symbol of both wealth and (male) power. She doesn’t want a man to give her jewels, she will take them for herself, with the aid of her crack team of thieves.
Topkapi’s popularity in the US, linked with the James Bond films, influenced television shows like The Man From UNCLE, which appeared, like Topkapi, in 1964. If I may digress for a moment, I’ve been rewatching these shows, much beloved in my youth, and they fascinate me. Although, I remembered adoring them for one of my first crushes, on David McCallum (as Russian turned international agent Illya Kuryakin…interestingly sharing the same first name as Mercouri’s character in Never on Sunday) the episodes speak to me in new ways. First of all, I was astonished at the talent behind the camera. One episode was written by future Oscar winner Robert Towne. Others are directed by Richard Donner (Superman) Joseph Sargent (The Taking of Pelham 123) and other big screen directors to be.
But, the most engaging aspect is that many episodes take an everyman…or more often, an everywoman, and involve them in a plot of danger of intrigue, clearly influenced by Eric Ambler and the film, Topkapi. If it is an everywoman, assistance most often includes a glamour makeover (courtesy of UNCLE) an adventure which shows her capable of more than she, or anyone else ever suspected, and a reluctant, but firm return to school teaching in Des Moines, or whatever, her Interpol Cinderella moment over. Weekly reminders of female cleverness and potency (The Avengers Emma Peel would arrive on American tv screens shortly afterwards) certainly reinforced the role of the women in the caper film, following in the bejeweled footsteps of Elizabeth Lipp.
This photo, cut from a newspaper tv schedule, was on my bulletin board when I was a teenager. Note thumbtack holes.
Contemporary critics, even cranky ones at Films in Review, raved: “Jules Dassin has managed to top Rififi—and in magnificent color to boot! Topkapi is a thoroughly entertaining mixture of wit, adventure and sur-realistic photographic effects, and this is ‘64’s most enjoyable suspense spoof” (FIR). And later analysts concurred, which is sometimes an unusual combination: “Critics claim Topkapi does not have quite the suspense or the sting of Rififi. This may be so, but Topkapi is a vastly more entertaining film, more amusing, more adventurous and handsomely photographed in colour, mostly on location in Turkey” (Thomas 150).
Topkapi is the genesis of untold numbers of crime films and television shows, as well as utilizing Dassin’s documentary sensibility with its luscious footage of Greece and Turkey. He also slips in a bit of his Yiddish theater background, as Miss Lipp and Mr. Harper describe the hapless Arthur Simpson as a schmo, a Yiddish word meaning “a boob, a hapless, clumsy, unlucky jerk.” But, Dassin’s most significant cinematic contribution here is reimagining the caper, with a brilliant woman in charge.
Photos: Dassin and Mercouri, and Mercouri, Schell, and Ustinov at restaurant from I Was Born Greek, Mercouri portrait from Films in Review, newspaper photo from the author’s collection remaining two photos from Ustinov in Focus. Sources include, “ Topkapi” by Nanda Ward Haynes , October, 1964 Films in Review, New York Times Obituary for Jules Dassin, April 1, 2008, I Was Born Greek by Melina Mercouri, Dear Me by Peter Ustinov, Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz, “A Caper of One’s Own: Fantasy Female Liberation in 1960s Crime Comedy Caper Film” by Robert von Dassanowsky Journal of Popular Film and Television Fall 2007, Ustinov in Focus by Tony Thomas, The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten.