Topkapi (1964)

RIP, Maximilian Schell.

Of the cinema personalities who have passed on recently and to whom I’ve posted tributes on this blog, nearly all have been people I’ve watched in at least a few films each. People (like Eleanor Parker, who for years I knew only as the Baroness from The Sound of Music) whom I may not initially have been utterly enamoured of, but whom I’ve grown to like and admire after having watched them in numerous roles. Joan Fontaine, Peter O’Toole, Suchitra Sen

The Austrian-born Maximilian Schell (December 8, 1930-February 1, 2014) is the exception, because this is one actor whom I’ve seen—before I watched Topkapi—in only one role: as the earnest young lawyer in Judgment at Nuremberg. Just one performance (an Oscar-winning one), mind you, and that was enough to make me a Max Schell fan. Enough of a fan to mourn his passing.

Maximilian Schell, 1930-2014So, even though it’s been several days since Mr Schell died, and even though Topkapi isn’t all Schell (in fact, it depends a lot on others, most notably Peter Ustinov), here’s to Max Schell. May you live on in our hearts and on our screens.

Topkapi is named for the famous palace complex in Istanbul, home to the Ottoman Sultans for over six centuries—which we learn in a rather irritating multi-coloured-lenses prologue, as Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri, past her prime and looking rather like a slim Omar Sharif in a blonde wig ) takes us on a very short tour of the deserted premises, especially the treasury. Ms Lipp [should’ve been ‘lisp’, since that’s what she does] tells us that that isn’t her real name, anyway; because she—whispered conspiratorially—is a thief.

A thief introduces herself
Yes, well. She goes on to show us the treasures here: a throne so grand that ‘no king or emperor ever sat on a throne more precious’ [personally, I don’t think it measures up to descriptions of the Peacock Throne], some magnificent jewels, and a bejewelled dagger, nice enough if you like huge emeralds. This is what she wants. Not the jeweller, not the throne [well, that would have been a problem to smuggle out, anyway] but the dagger.

...and ogles a bejewelled dagger
We now meet the man whom she chooses to be her accomplice in this matter: the suave and polished Swiss thief, Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell, looking very debonair), who is surprised to find her coming looking for him after 3 years. There’s obviously been something more than just a professional relationship between these two in the past [which lowers my opinion of his taste considerably. But then, perhaps, Ms Lipp has simply been leading an extremely dissipated life these past 3 years, living off her ill-gotten gains].

Elizabeth Lipp gets in touch with Walter Harper
It doesn’t take too long for Elizabeth to entice Walter into agreeing to help steal the dagger from the Topkapi treasury. He sets down one important condition: they will hire amateurs to help. Neither he nor she appear on police records anywhere; they cannot afford to have accomplices who do, either.

Harper lays down some conditions
They soon discover the biggest hurdle: the floor surrounding the exhibit is wired. Walter’s mechanical expert associate, Cedric Page (Robert Morley) demonstrates this: step on to a facsimile of the floor, and an alarm goes off immediately. Any weight, and ding!—all the guards in Topkapi will come running.

Page demonstrates a problem
Walter and Elizabeth, tucking this bit of information under their belts, set out on the next step of their plan: to hire someone to do the dirty work for them. This is Arthur Simon Simpson (another house favourite, Peter Ustinov), who peddles cheap curios to tourists and tries to sell [unsuccessfully] shady nightlife deals to them on the waterfront in a small Greek town, Kabana.

At Kabana
They approach Simpson, giving him the impression they’re tourists, and ask him if he’d like to do a job for them. Paid well, of course. All he has to do is drive a car—the papers for it are all made out and ready, in the name of Mr Plimpton—across the border, into Turkey. Simpson will drive the car to Istanbul, where, at a hotel and address supplied by Walter, he is to leave the car for Mr Plimpton.

Simple enough, and Simpson is happy to take on the assignment.

Simpson is given an assignment
Except that, when he reaches the border and crosses over into Turkey, the Turkish border police smell a rat. It begins with them discovering that Simpson [who looks and sounds as English as bangers and mash] holds an Egyptian passport. His long-winded explanation about being the offspring of a British colonel and an Egyptian mother—and papers being so difficult to get hold of back then, troop movements and all, so he had to accept Egyptian nationality—doesn’t endear him to them.

At the border: a Turkish policeman is unimpressed
Neither does his trying to speak Arabic, which the officer in charge coldly informs Simpson he doesn’t speak.

Neither does the fact that Simpson’s passport expired some time back.

Neither does the fact that the Turkish border guards, searching the car, discover a gun and lots of smoke grenades carefully concealed in one of the car doors.

Simpson's car is searched
Simpson’s goose is cooked. Before he can offer bribes or plead or make a dash for it, the Turks have grabbed him and hustled him off to a scary-looking interrogation. The officer doing the questioning is suitably sinister, wearing dark glasses throughout (the room is pretty dark, by the way). It isn’t long before Simpson has confessed that his father wasn’t a colonel, he was a sergeant. Acting sergeant. Acting unpaid sergeant.

But he, Simpson, doesn’t know a thing about the gun and the smoke grenades and all that.

An interrogation is held...
The Turks, however, think they know what this is about. They have a major national celebration coming up in a couple of days’ time in Istanbul. A sniper, up on a rooftop, can target the parade. Smoke grenades can be used to cause panic and a stampede. These look like all the trappings of a terrorist attack.
Simpson—gauche and bumbling and sweating—is too obviously innocent. But he can be roped in to help.

...and Simpson tries to defend himself
So Simpson is given instructions: he will continue with the assignment he’s been given, but he’ll now be working on the Turks’ side, unknown to Walter and Elizabeth. The Turkish officer shows Simpson the car and driver that’ll follow him around, and to whom he can pass on a message—written on a page torn from a small notebook [given by the officer], put into an empty cigarette pack [also given by the officer]. Simpson must keep his eyes and ears open and pass on everything he sees and hears, no matter how trivial it may seem.

Instructions are passed on to Simpson, now police informant
Simpson’s too terrified to do anything but obey. According to plan (and Walter’s instructions), therefore, he arrives at the Istanbul hotel, hands over the car keys and papers for Mr Plimpton (who is actually Walter’s gadget guru, Cedric Page) and sets off. Page/Plimpton goes out to his new car, and is immediately accosted by a policeman who asks for the car papers, examines them and gives Plimpton some rigmarole that the car’s papers are made out to Mrs Plimpton, so only Mrs Plimpton can drive it—or the driver who brought the car to Istanbul can.

Mr 'Plimpton' is given some odd news
Page/Plimpton is too befuddled (and also too wary of getting on the wrong side of the cops), and—as [to Plimpton] luck would have it—Simpson passes by just then, so is hired in a jiffy to drive ‘Plimpton’ around.

With the police car following discreetly behind so that Simpson can chuck cigarette packetsfull of surreptitious notes for the cops to pick up.

At their destination, Simpson meets two familiar faces—Walter and Elizabeth, both a little surprised to see him back again. He’s also introduced to three others. One is the highly emotional, perpetually drunk cook Gerven (Akim Tamiroff), who fondly believes this group to be a bunch of tourists.

The cook
One of the others is the deaf-mute Giulio ‘The Human Fly’ (Gilles Ségal), who will play a critical role in stealing the jewelled dagger. He will hang upside-down from the roof of the treasury, suspended by a rope, and will replace the real dagger with a fake replica crafted by Elizabeth.

The 'Human Fly', Guilio
The other is Hans (Jess Hahn), who’s very strong and very hot-tempered. He is the one who will lie stretched out on the treasury roof, holding onto the rope and keeping Giulio safe while The Human Fly is at work.

The strong man
Simpson, of course, hasn’t the slightest clue of all of this. All he knows, from the fact that he’s seen the gun and the smoke grenades hidden in the car door, is that this bunch of tourists are not tourists at all. They’re definitely up to something fishy.

He’s been promised—by the Turkish police—that one of their men will always be near at hand, keeping an eye on things. This, Simpson thinks, just might be the cook [and what a disguise if it is!]… but no luck.

Suddenly, however, things seem to start falling into place. Simpson overhears Walter telling the others “the entire Turkish army won’t be able to stop us”, and one day at the riverfront fair, he sees Elizabeth and Walter have a short and rather ambiguous conversation with a man named Joseph (Joseph Dassin, son of the film’s director, Jules Dassin) sitting next to a mannequin dressed—down to the jewelled dagger—like the mannequin at the Topkapi treasury.

At the fair: a replica of the dagger
We, of course, know better. It looks as if it’s a simple story of a cunning heist that’s going to be possibly split apart (or not) because of a bumbling and reluctant spy. But is that it? Who will win? Will Walter and his gang be able to pull off this stunt and steal the dagger from under the noses of the Turkish police, aided by Simpson, inept though he may be? Or will things take a completely unexpected turn? Or a series of unexpected turns?

Topkapi was directed by the American-born director Jules Dassin, who migrated to France after being blacklisted in Hollywood. In France, he went on to make what is often considered the definitive heist film, among the first of its kind, Rififi (1955). Topkapi, while not as famous as Rififi (or as well-plotted as later heist films, like the Clooney-Pitt Ocean’s Eleven), is a good watch, a fast-paced tale, with a fine thread of humour running through it (in the form of Peter Ustinov’s Simpson).

What I liked about this film:

The contrast between Schell as Walter Harper and Peter Ustinov as Arthur Simpson. Harper is the quintessential master thief: cool, calm, calculating, and brilliant both at working out the intricacies of a plan, and at bringing together discordant elements to work in tandem. He looks it, too: suave, handsome, never a hair out of place, almost always in control of himself and the situation.

Peter Ustinov and Maximilian Schell in Topkapi
Simpson, on the other hand, is everything Harper is not. He is bumbling, scared, totally inept as a criminal, scared of heights, and—in short—not the sort of man one should expect to either be a successful criminal or a police informant. Together, they’re the perfect foil for each other. And though Ustinov (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the role) doesn’t spend a huge amount of screen time with Schell, the time they’re together is critical—and edge-of-the-seat exciting.

The story, while smart, isn’t as intricately plotted as some other heist films I’ve seen (How to Steal a Million comes to mind), but it’s engaging enough, and the humour through much of it is good. Plus, the crucial scene—the actual heist—is very well-directed, in utter silence, with not a note of background music and almost no dialogue to dilute the tense suspense of it all.

What I didn’t like:

Yes, I know Melina Mercouri fans will probably kill me for this, but really: she just didn’t fit, and personally, I found nothing attractive about her. Add to that a very strong accent—at times difficult to decipher—and I see no reason why she couldn’t have been replaced with a better actress. [Actually, since she married Jules Dassin in 1966, I think I see why].

Secondly, the occasional question that remains unanswered, or the occasional bit of plot that was far-fetched.  (For instance, the distraction to keep the guards at Topkapi away while the getaway was being made, or the distraction to keep the searchlights away while entering the treasury—both made me roll my eyes).

Maximilian Schell is, in my humble opinion, at his very very best in Judgment at Nuremberg. But if you’ve already seen that one and are looking for another to remember Mr Schell by, this one’s a possible candidate. Very different from Judgment at Nuremberg, not really allowing Maximilian Schell to show off his acting too much (though he does get to show how athletic he is!), but still an enjoyable film.

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25 thoughts on “Topkapi (1964)

  1. Aaaah …. I don’t remember the movie all too well–watched it a loooooong time ago. I was a teenager then! It was at the outdoor, sitting on the folding chairs on the club lawn, movie watching activity in the old township … went there to watch movies and a particular girl … hmmm … lots of memories … thanks for stirring them up ;)
    But, I do remember being fascinated with Peter Ustinov in that movie.

    BTW, didn’t the late Hindi actor, Amjad Khan, own a restaurant called Topkapi?

    • That sounds like a very interesting way to watch a film! Somehow I missed out on film-watching sessions of that sort, but my husband recalls community-watching at Airforce stations in farflung corners of the country that sound similar (minus the girls!)

      Peter Ustinov was very good in this film. But then, he was a brilliant actor, all said and done. One of my favourite British actors.

  2. Madhu, I’ve been haunting your blog the past couple of days wondering why you weren’t posting anything new. :) D’you know, the list of movies that I haven’t seen (and, shame on me, haven’t heard of) is growing by the day! Thanks for the review – well-written and humorous as always. :) I liked your asides about Melina Mercouri’s looks andabout why she was chosen to play the female lead. :) (I share that opinion, by the way!)

    Max Schell is dishy! I remember watching him in Judgement at Nuremberg (a disturbing film! and one that I saw just a few years ago) and I’m surprised that I didn’t even know about this film. And it is not as if this film is not well-known! :( Will keep an eye out for this one. It sounds delicious!

    p.s. Yes, Topkapi was a restaurant owned by Amjad Khan in Bangalore. I wonder if it is still there.

    • I agree about Judgement at Nuremberg, Anu. Such a disturbing film (when I reviewed it, though, a rather rude schoolkid stopped by to tell me how dumb I was to think it was disturbing). But also a very good film, and I thought Maximilian Schell was fabulous in it.

      I’m glad you liked my review of Topkapi! It’s a good film (and has a neat thread of humour running through it), but you need to try and overlook Melina Mercouri. The worst is, all the men in the film seem to be willing to do anything for a kiss from her. *shudder*

  3. You know, for some reason, I always thought Topkapi was a war film of the “Oscar-winning” kind! Ditto about Max Schell. But now that I’ve seen how dishy he is, (and its a heist film!) I’m going to have to look out for this one. As to Melina Mercouri, you should focus on the important things (Max Schell!) and ignore irritating details, as I mean to. ;-)

    • Well, it was Oscar-winning, in a way, since Ustinov won an Oscar for it. Plus Topkapi got a bunch of other awards too. Not Oscars, but still. It’s an enjoyable enough film; not as skillfully plotted as some other heist films (but nowhere as insipid as the original Ocean’s Eleven), but still good. And Schell is a hottie. Out and out.

    • I’ve heard about Rififi – in fact, had been looking out for it – but never got around to actually ordering it. Will do, now that you’ve recommended it so highly. Thanks, Bawa!

  4. I watched this film some 5-6 years ago on TV, and remember enjoying it a lot. And what I loved how very silly (purposely) the plot was at times and then still not. And loved the ending!
    And of course Shell looked so dashing in it.
    I saw him in The Man in the Glass Booth ages back and was impressed by his acting there, though he doesn’t look very good there. At that I didn’t know he was THE Maximilian Schell!
    I also like the film-biography on his sister, Maria Schell!
    RIP Maximilian Schell

    • And loved the ending!

      Yes! It was good. Nice twist there. And then another twist. ;-)

      I’ve never seen The Man in the Glass Booth, but one Schell film I really want to see is called Counterpoint, starring him as a German officer during WWII who (from what I gather) forms a sort of friendship with an American opera director (or singer, I don’t recall), played by Charlton Heston. Considering Schell himself was an accomplished musician and actually directed Placido Domingo himself, that is one film I certainly do want to watch.

    • … and I haven’t seen The Black Hole. Will go check it out on IMDB and see what it’s about.

      No, Phillip Seymour Hoffmann won’t get a tribute on this blog, because this blog is restricted quite strictly to films from before the 1970s. Also, I’ve actually seen very few of his films – the only one I remember watching was The Talented Mr Ripley, which I did mention in my review of Plein Soleil, though I didn’t specifically mention Hoffmann there.

  5. Madhu,
    A very well-written review.

    I have not seen the movie, but I have seen Judgment at Nuremberg, and was enchanted by it. Schell was masterly. However, I remembered Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster more, either because they were the more famous names, or because their exchanges in the court or in the prison, when Tracy calls on the latter, brought out the central dilemma of the movie – the boundaries between what is right and what is legal, and how could absolutely honorable and respected people act in the way they did in the name of obeying the law of the land. Now, I have to see it again for Schell. Somehow, this movie always reminded me of Paths of Glory.

    It is difficult to repeat such acting in a heist movie. But Topkaki seems watchable, more so for Istanbul setting.

    AK

    • Thank you, AK, I’m glad you liked this review.

      When I saw Judgement at Nuremberg, I’d actually seen very little of either Spencer Tracy or Burt Lancaster (in fact, if I remember correctly, it was the first Tracy film I watched), so the actors I was already familiar with by way of performances were the more minor ones – Judy Garland and William Shatner (I grew up on Star Trek!) – and, yes, Marlene Dietrich. I began watching the film only based on my mother’s recommendation that it was excellent, so Maximilian Schell came as a very pleasant surprise.

      But yes, Tracy and Lancaster were both superb too, especially that epic 11-minute speech of Tracy’s. Fantastic.

  6. Back in my childhood films like Topkapi, How To Steal A Million were taboo for us kids, no our parents had no issues about us watching the films, it was the censors who played spoilsports by giving these films an ‘A’ certificate. I therefore heard the grown ups discussing these films. It didn’t take long for the Hindi film directors to get influenced by Topkapi, I think it was the Dharmendra -Hema Malini starrer Jugnu which had a similar heist scene. I saw it much later on television but that was also quite a long time ago, I would like to see the film again. These are films which were talked about a great deal during our childhood, after all it was something new, today it might pale in comparison to some of our modern day films but those days such films were a novelty.
    There was another film which my father had seen and really liked, no not a heist film, it was the Sophia Loren starrer Sunflower directed by legendary filmmaker Vittorio de Sica, it was an Italian film. I think my father saw the dubbed version or perhaps it was subtitled. Have you seen it? I haven’t, I would love to. I remember my father praising Sophia Loren.

    • Gosh I was posting this comment on my brother’s computer late at night, my brother had posted a comment somewhere so the comments form was showing his details, I was changing the details to my name but the cursor jumped to post comment and that is why you have Advertisng Opinions posting a comment , that is me Shilpi up there and not Mr Advertising Opinions. HA! Ha!

    • For the first few years, almost all the films I saw – whether Hindi or English – were on Doordarshan, since we lived in Srinagar (which had only one decent cinema hall) and things were beginning to get bad in the Valley. It was never safe to go out to watch a film, and since few local women went to cinema halls, my mother, my sister and I would’ve stuck out like sore thumbs. Doordarshan did show some good films – and some (like Fedora), which I remember watching but didn’t understand back then. But no Topkapi or other heist films.

      I haven’t seen Sunflower, but I do like both Sophia Loren, and de Sica. And if it comes with your father’s recommendation, I must certainly look out for it!

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