Occasionally we come across a book or a movie or some such thing that is so right-up-our-alley, I can't believe we haven't discovered it before, especially if it has been around for years. But some things fly under the radar for whatever reason, and when we finally discover them, they make us so happy.
This is how I felt when I watched Topkapi last week, a 1964 zany caper film directed by Jules Dassin, starring Melina Mercouri, and suggested by my husband as we crawled through a zillion unappealing shows on Prime video. He remembered having seen it with his dad and a bunch of friends when he was a kid, and said they all loved it. That's good enough for me!
The film opens with zany kaledoscopic images of scenes built with mannequins from a fair, nutsy balalaika music, and the voice of Melina Mercouri laughing maniacally, one of those bwah-ha-ha kind of laughs. Little images of her face pop on and off around the face of an arcade game, setting up the fact that this is going to be a zany movie, the way only zany 60s movies could be. If you are into this kind of thing, you know you’re in for a treat.
The first scene is so kaleidoscope and surreal that it’s a little hard to tell what the hell is going on, so I will explain what the hell is going on: we are shown a mannequin depicting the Sultan Mahmud at a traveling fair, with special attention on a curved bejeweled dagger strapped across his front. Breaking the fourth wall, Elizabeth tells us that she has finally had a great idea then asks the owner of the fair how often he has been in and out of the country. "Many times," he answers, "many times," and says that he has never had a problem crossing the border at customs. "They know me." He says. "Joseph," Elizabeth says, "You are going to very rich... (but) it will be some time before I see you." And she walks exuberantly out of the fairgrounds. She has a plan!
Next we see Elizabeth in a smart white outfit out in broad daylight, and she is talking directly to us again, to show us what she is so excited about. She takes us into the grounds of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbuhl, the former seraglio which has since been turned into a museum housing state treasures. She points out a magnificent this and a spectacular that, but she's only interested in the Sultan's dagger, hanging on a mannequin that looks quite a bit like that one we saw at the fair.
It's made of "the greatest emeralds the world has ever known..." she tells us. And this thing turns this lady on. She has a little... let's say... ecstatic moment, standing there in front of it, before she remembers that we're still there. She tells us that she will have it, and that it's going to be hers, because, after all, she is, a thief. Honest!
Cut to a foggy city scene and two debonair men walking slowly along, one of which is sipping a brandy. This is Walter Harper, played by Maximilian Schell, and after he packs the other guy off in cab, he senses the presence of his former lover and student of thievery, Elizabeth Lipp lurking behind him in the murk.
A reunion! The two retire to Elizabeth's apartment to cavort and discuss her proposal. And what an apartment she has! She has statues, a full-size mock-up of the Sultan's mannequin with a little practice dagger stuck on it, giant projections on the wall, and she’s in the middle of an art project. Melina is building another replica dagger with faux emeralds.
She wants to steal the real dagger out of Topkapi, and replace it with her replica. “It's too tough!” He says, “But I will do it.” The caveat is that he wants to pick the crew and use only amateurs because they won’t have a dossier. “Amateurs?” She asks. “Only amateurs.” He says.
And in the tradition of any good caper movie (you get the feeling that this movie pre-dated every good caper movie), what follows is the assembly of the team, including a bumbling British/Australian ex-pat con-man named Arthur Simpson, played by Peter Ustinov.
Walter sets Arthur Simpson up to smuggle some arms and grenades into Istanbul (unbeknownst to Arthur), hidden in the door of a convertible, which are to be used during the robbery, But he is apprehended by the Turkish police who discover the arms, and we are introduced to this very cool character, the chief detective, who never ever takes of his glasses.
The chief lets Arthur Simpson go, only after setting him up to provide intelligence to the police, via the simple task of writing notes down in a little notebook, tearing off the page, stuffing it in an empty cigarette package, and throwing it out of the car.
And then we are headed to Istanbul.
Here's the villa where we meet the rest of the gang: a strong man, an mute acrobat and a genius inventor played by Robert Morley, whose favorite toy is a parrot with a little hidden tape recorder in it. Here the old adage comes into play, that if you introduce the sound of a woman's maniacal laughter in act 1, you have to use it again at some key point in the film.
I won’t give away too much more, except to say that this movie is so beautiful. Every single scene is beautiful. And it's exciting! This film is the predecessor to the all of the Oceans movies, and Mission Impossible. There is the assembly of the crew, the elaborate planning of the near impossible caper and at one point the acrobat is lowered down over the glass case to extract the dagger and replace it with the fake one. This scene is so suspenseful. Thirty years later when Tom Cruise lowers himself down into a vault in Mission Impossible 1, you realize that the stealth body-lowering technology really hasn't changed that much.
The end of the movie is quite satisfying. The fair with the mannequins come back into play, but as you can see, the chief detective looks rather satisfied here in one of the final scenes. The film almost seems to set up a sadly never-to-be-made sequel at the end, but that's okay, because director Jules Dassin and star Melina Mercouri went on to make another movie together called Phaedra, which looks equally great. Maybe not as lighthearted as Topkapi, but it looks epic.