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In 1954, while he was living in exile in France after being blacklisted by Hollywood, writer/director/actor Jules Dassin, made Rififi, a dark, fatalistic thriller that is considered the granddaddy of all heist movies. Ten years later, he returned to the genre though this time he served up a brilliant spoof entitled Topkapi. The plot, which involves the efforts of Elizabeth Lipp (played by Dassin's real-life wife, Melina Mercouri) and her gang of jewel thieves to steal a jeweled dagger from the impenetrable Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, is markedly different from Rififi in almost every detail. The hardened criminals of Rififi have been replaced by an eccentric crew who approach their objective with supreme confidence and good humor. Whereas Dassin effectively worked in black and white to capture the grinding poverty and squalid surroundings of the thieves in Rififi, he uses lush color photography and the exotic locales of Turkey and Greece to create a light, sparkling entertainment in Topkapi. But there is one similarity the two films share and that is the climatic heist sequence. Filmed without dialogue and only minimal sound effects to heighten the tension, the theft of the jeweled dagger in Topkapi lasts forty minutes and improves on the burglary sequence in Rififi by virtue of its sheer technical virtuosity. In fact, director Brian de Palma and Tom Cruise would later pay homage to this scene in Mission: Impossible (1996).
In spite of an excellent ensemble cast, which included Ms. Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, and Robert Morley, critics singled out Peter Ustinov for his performance as Arthur Simpson, a bumbling tourist guide who is manipulated by both the jewel thieves and the local police. In the 1964 Oscar® race for Best Supporting Actor, Ustinov even beat out such worthy contenders as John Gielgud in Becket and Stanley Holloway in My Fair Lady for the prized statuette. Later the actor admitted (in Ustinov in Focus by Tony Thomas), "I have a special affection for Topkapi. The character is so absurd. I love the idea of a man who aims low and misses. Simpson is the kind of man who wears blazers a little too consistently, the kind with military presumptions, who has to belong to a cricket club. He's a man who hovers between the more reprehensible columns of The News of the World and oblivion."
On an interesting side note, Topkapi inspired an actual theft shortly after its release. Three men broke into the American Museum of Natural History in New York and escaped with the famous Star of India, De Long Ruby, and other priceless treasures. They were eventually apprehended and admitted in custody that they had seen Topkapi prior to their robbery.
Screenplay:Eric Ambler (novel The Light of Day), Monja Danischewsky
Principle Cast:Melina Mercouri (Elizabeth Lipp), Peter Ustinov (Arthur Simpson), Maximilian Schell (Walter Harper), Robert Morley (Cedric Page), Jess Hahn (Fischer), Gilles Segal (Giulio), Akim Tamiroff (Geven), Titos Vandis (Harback)
C-120m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford