Restored by HFPA: "Topkapi" (1964)

Meher Tatna 01/26/2023

Topkapi (1964)

The poster has a glamorous blonde woman smiling over her bare shoulder, and the caption reads:

“It’s for tonight, darling, in Istanbul . . .
We’ve got a leather vest, a surgeon’s lamp, a suction cup and a Boy Scout knot
Also a mastermind, an electronics genius – and a schmo
Come on – you’re cut in on the theft of the century!”

The film is 1964’s Topkapi, the blonde is Melina Mercouri, the mastermind is her old lover Maximilian Schell, the electronics genius is Peter Morley and the schmo is Peter Ustinov who would win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, beating out John Gielgud in Becket and Stanley Holloway in My Fair Lady.

In the story, jewel thief Elizabeth Lipp (Mercouri) tracks down her ex-lover Walter Harper (Schell) and entices him into helping her steal the Sultan’s emerald dagger from Istanbul’s Topkapi Museum. The pair decide to hire an amateur crew with no police record as accomplices, and Lipp works her wiles to enlist them. Cedric Page (Morley) is an eccentric British inventor with a sharp wit and a workshop full of dazzling toys, one of which becomes a pivotal prop. Giulio (Gilles Segal, the “human fly”) is a mute athlete who will actually execute the daring robbery. Hans Fischer (Jess Hahn) is a strongman who has to bow out of the caper due to an unfortunate accident, and Arthur Simpson (Ustinov) is the clueless petty hustler they hire to drive a car loaded with weapons over the border into Istanbul.

Maximilian Schell, Peter Ustinov, Jess Hahn, Melina Mercouri, Robert Morley, and Gilles Ségal in "Topkapi" (1964)
Maximilian Schell, Peter Ustinov, Jess Hahn, Melina Mercouri, Robert Morley, and Gilles Ségal in Topkapi (1964)
© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Arthur manages to get himself caught with the arms at the border by Turkish police, who think he is part of a terrorist gang bent on assassinating foreign dignitaries at an upcoming event. He manages to save himself by promising to spy on his employers, a bargain that is struck when the cops realize the bumbling guy knows nothing. As in all heist movies, nothing goes smoothly. When Hans is injured in a fight, Arthur is recruited to take his place, after he is told of the plan, but also after he has been leaving messages for the Turkish police telling them his colleagues are Russian spies.

The last 40 minutes of the film, when the heist actually takes place, are quite breathtaking, with Walter, Giulio and Arthur scrambling over rooftops to access the museum’s Treasury and trying to cope with Arthur’s fear of heights; Giulio being lowered through a sky window, tethered to a rope controlled by the sweating Arthur, in order to access the dagger; Giulio’s acrobatics suspended on the rope to prevent himself from touching the floor that is wired with alarms; and Elizabeth and Cedric’s ruse to distract a lighthouse man and change the timing of the searchlight that falls on the Treasury’s wall.

"Topkapi" (1964)
Topkapi (1964)

In 1996’s Mission Impossible, director Brian de Palma pay homage to the sequence with a similar scene starring Tom Cruise.

Based on Eric Ambler’s novel “The Light of Day,” Topkapi is directed by Jules Dassin, who moved to Europe when he was blacklisted in the McCarthy witch hunts after being named as a Communist by fellow director Edward Dmytryk. Dassin would marry Mercouri two years after the film’s release: they stayed together until her death in 1994. Mercouri had already starred in several of Dassin’s previous films, including the heist film Rififi in 1955 and the comedy Never on Sunday in 1960. They would work together on eight films. Topkapi was Dassin’s first color film.

The film diverges from the Ambler novel in several ways. The novel’s POV is from the character of Arthur Simpson, and because of that, the reader is unaware of the heist until Simpson learns of it halfway through the story. In the movie, the Mercouri character (whose role is much bigger than that in the novel) informs the audience of the robbery even before the opening credits begin. While Ambler had a hand in the screenplay, sole credit onscreen is given to Monja Danischewsky.

Peter Sellers was originally cast as Simpson, but Ustinov replaced him when Sellers withdrew because, as one account says, he did not get along with Schell. In an ironic twist, Sellers had replaced Ustinov in 1963’s The Pink Panther.

Orson Welles was offered the part of Cedric Page but passed on it. Christopher Plummer and Richard Widmark were in the running for the Walter Harper role. Director Dassin’s son Joseph has a small part as a traveling fair manager who is enlisted to smuggle the dagger out of Istanbul. The younger Dassin would go on to have a stellar career as a singer-songwriter in Europe.

Most of the film was shot in Istanbul, showcasing exotic landmarks like the Topkapi Palace, St. Sophia’s Mosque and the Dolmabahce Palace. Another location was the Kavala harbor in Greece. Interiors were shot at the Boulogne Billancourt Studios in Paris.

For some reason, only the below-the-line crew is listed in the opening credits. The actors’ names appear at the end of the film as they are shown cavorting in an unknown snow-bound location under the caption, “There they go again!” This scene is probably setting up a sequel that ultimately wasn’t to be. There is also a suggestion for another heist in the penultimate scene of the movie. In 1965, a Los Angeles Times article had said Dassin planned a sequel called The Crown Jewels using the same cast, but it was never made.

The film premiered in Paris on September 4, 1964, opening in the US two weeks later. It made $7 million at the box office and was considered a big success. In his New York Times review, critic Bosley Crowther said, “It is another adroitly plotted crime film, played this time for guffaws, and if you don’t split some­thing, either laughing or squirming in suspense, we'll be surprised. We’ll also be surprised if you’re not dazzled by the ex­travagantly colorful decor and the brilliantly atmospheric setting, which happens to be Istanbul.”

A few years ago, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association asked director Christopher Nolan to choose a film for restoration. His choice was Topkapi, long one of his favorites.

Topkapi was restored at FotoKem Laboratory from the 35mm original camera negative and a 35mm color interpositive. Audio restoration was completed at Audio Mechanics from a 35mm track negative. The photochemical restoration was done by The Film Foundation in collaboration with Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios Inc. Nolan was actively involved in the process. The funding was provided by the HFPA.

Topkapi had its world restoration premiere at the 2022 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.


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