Topkapi (1964): Capering About

I ordered Topkapi (1964) on recommendation, and upon receiving it, could not remember what the heck it was supposed to be about. Going by the name, I was convinced it must be Japanese (I think probably because it makes me think of Tampopo). Colour me surprised to find a sprightly heist film from Greece. Directed by Jules Dassin.

Synopsis: A jewel thief and her lover enlist a team of thieves and conspire to steal an emerald dagger from the Topkapi museum in Istanbul. Based on Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day.

What is it about heists that turns despicable, law-breaking criminals into sassy, charming anti-heroes? I wonder this often. I work with offenders and can attest to the general hatred people feel towards criminals. Even in movies, people rarely cheer for the rapist, the bank robber, the murderer, the monster (well… maybe sometimes on that last one; I was certainly wishing that the people in Cloverfield would have the good sense to SHUT UP and get eaten already). And there are always freaks like me who love a damaged, flawed anti-hero. But if the criminal happens to be a debonair cat-burgler, the audience in general is in his/her pocket. I think partly this is because, holy frick – that’s an impenetrable safe surrounded by motion detecting lasers and set to explode if you breathe on it! There seems to be a mutual agreement among both purveyors and consumers of entertainment that to plan a heist is a very difficult feat. I have to wonder how many of these security devices actually exist in real life (“this device measures your thoughts and sounds an alarm if you think money”). But in the film world, it requires patience, dedication, intelligence, and (apparently) charm to plan a caper. And then to successfully pull it off?! It’s a strange scenario in which I believe the audience respects the criminal’s skill, and so can readily accept her/him as a sympathetic figure.

The lovable, rag-tag crew in Topkapi is certainly sympathetic. And very familiar. Please understand, this is not a dig at Topkapi, but rather a testament to its influence on some level. Echos of our contemporary heist conventions are abound. Giulio the Human Fly harkens back to Yen from the Ocean’s Eleven remake. And to think one of the most intense heist flick scenes, the cable descent into the CIA vault from Mission: Impossible, was done 30 years earlier and just as successfully is impressive.

But don’t think that because these conventions are now familiar, Topkapi has nothing to offer. Dassin clearly has an eye for direction and he uses the camera in very interesting ways, including the surreal-esque kaleidoscope beginning sequence. Our initial introduction to Arthur Simon Simpson is a beautifully constructed long-take of Arthur shilling the tourists. Another convention of heist flicks I enjoy is the international flavour that often accompanies the genre. There is a tendency in Hollywood to forget the rest of the world exists (I understand there are financial reasons that are at least partly to blame for this), and I appreciated seeing Greece and Turkey and France and imagining myself there (granted it’s a Greek film, but… shut up). Then, of course, there is the heist itself. It is incredibly tense, largely due to the lack of score; the entire scene is nearly silent, much as one would imagine a real heist would be like.  Don’t be surprised to find you’re holding your breath.

And finally, representing the lady folks, I would like to give a shout-out to Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri). When I said the characters were familiar, I meant with the exception of Elizabeth. You don’t see women like Elizabeth much in movies, especially not movies of a male-dominated genre like action/heist. Typically in such movies, we women are represented by overly-sexualized play-things who look good working a laser maze (rock it, Zeta-Jones!). Elizabeth is not this woman, nor is she the woman who is afraid of sex. She is sexual, but there is one important distinction between her and what we are used to: she is the ogler, not the oglee. She is the pursuer, an active participant, and not only in sexual encounters but also in planning the heist. It is her brainchild, and she is in control. Yeah, OK. I kind of loved her.

Overall, Topkapi is funny, exciting, and beautiful to look at with an ending I didn’t see coming. And I love to be surprised by movies.

Favourite Scene: der… the heist

Key Quote: “I’m a thief. Promise.”  Runner-up: “Shhhhh, I’m being a lighthouse.”

WTF Moment: the mass orgy of man-on-man oiling before a large group wrestling match. Why is it the most homophobic organizations/groups have the most homoerotic rituals? Elizabeth didn’t mind; she LOVED this part.

Enjoy whatever you’re watching…


~ by K. Harker on December 10, 2010.

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