by David Cornelius
Nine years after helping define the heist movie with the 1955 masterpiece “Rififi,” director Jules Dassin took another go at the genre, this time with a comedy. “Topkapi” is a lighter, breezier affair than Dassin’s earlier picture, but it’s in no way weaker or less memorable. In fact, it’s this movie that served as the inspiration for the classic TV series “Mission: Impossible,” and yes, it’s this film’s most memorable sequence that was, um, “borrowed” for the most memorable sequence of the 1996 “Impossible” movie.That sequence - in which an acrobatic thief dangles from the ceiling, unable to touch the floor, all while maintaining the utmost silence - is designed for one purpose only: to one-up the “Rififi” heist, a brilliant bit of filmmaking that ran an entire thirty minutes without dialogue. It’s unfair to compare the two (the “Rififi” scene is based on pure suspense, the “Topkapi” intent is for more thrills - a minor difference, but a very important one), but I will say that the later film wins points for the best silence breaker. (No, I won’t ruin it for you, but if you don’t jump out of your seat, you must be asleep. Or worse.)
"The essential caper comedy."
More comparisons. “Rififi” is a dank, gritty, downright mean crime drama, while “Topkapi” is bouncy and bright, with not an ounce of menace in its bones. It’s in color, yes, but it’s also so colorful, tone-wise. It should be noted that Peter Ustinov, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in this movie, turned down “The Pink Panther” to act here instead; a wise move, as Ustinov landed the smarter picture while still getting to do plenty of uproarious slapstick. (One punchline involving a car unexpectedly going in reverse is right out of the Clouseau handbook.)
Ustinov shamelessly steals the show here, with scenes that will floor you with laughter, or at least get you tittering ceaselessly. He plays Arthur Simon Simpson, a bottom rung con man/hustler/idiot eager to do anything to make a buck on the lush Mediterranean coastlines. His total cluelessness makes him the perfect patsy for Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) and Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell), two criminal masterminds planning to nab a priceless jewel-encrusted dagger from Istanbul’s Topkapi Museum.
Plans quickly go awry with Simpson around, and soon the oaf is busy spying for the Turkish Security Service (getting everything wrong, naturally - he’s briefly convinced the crooks are Russian spies). Spying is tough work for a buffoon, of course, especially when you’ve got a strange cook (Akim Tamiroff) constantly following you, trying to either kiss you or kill you, you’re not sure. Tamiroff’s character exists merely for comic purposes, adding nothing at all to the plot, and we don’t mind one bit. His random appearances are so enjoyable that we begin to laugh the moment we see him sneak on screen.
In the middle of all this comic mayhem is the usual intricate planning. Along for the caper is gizmo expert Cedric Page (Robert Morley), acrobat Giulio (Gilles Ségal), and strongman Hans (Jess Hahn), each with their separate, very important duties. If this sort of thing sounds familiar to you, it’s because this kind of character use has been copied and recopied for the past four decades. As has the story, with its frantic unraveling of plans, its sly outwitting of authorities, and its clever twists of plot. Whatever today’s caper flicks don’t steal from “Rififi,” they steal from “Topkapi.”
Which brings us once again to that heist sequence. Unlike “Rififi,” which placed its caper in the middle of a broader story, “Topkapi” uses its set piece as the climax of the picture, the single moment to which all else builds. This reveals (again) a different line of thought from Dassin, whose earlier work is more character-oriented and whose later film is more entertainment-oriented. “Topkapi” is here to show you a good time and little more, and yet it’s so expertly made in that regard. The comedy is timed to the second, the thrills arranged perfectly for maximum effect. This is proof that a popcorn movie can still be made as intelligently and as skillfully as any “classier” project.Just watch that break-in scene, and you’ll know that your cheap thrills come to you courtesy of a master craftsman, one who, in just two movies, broke the mold on the caper genre.
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originally posted: 04/08/05 17:02:26