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.
So, 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.
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.
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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.