This weekend I caught up with Topkapi (1964) on DVR. Based on an Eric Ambler novel, the film is a heist movie about a group of international criminals who plot the theft of an emerald-encrusted dagger from a museum in Istanbul. Motivated by an avaricious bombshell (the engagingly odd Melina Mercouri) and steered by a slick mastermind (Maximilian Schell, perfectly cast), the team sees their meticulous plan morph into something else entirely, thanks largely to the comical involvement of a low-rent con man roped into the situation (Peter Ustinov, in a brilliantly funny, Academy Award-winning performance).
I saw Topkapi years ago and remember liking it a lot at the time, particularly for its elaborate heist sequence, its intricate visual story-telling, and its unique international feel and look. The film was a primary inspiration for the original Mission: Impossible (indeed, the first two episodes of Mission borrow liberally from Topkapi), and there are certainly obvious parallels — the team has a planning mastermind, a sultry actress, a strong man, and an engineering genius, archetypes clearly lifted by Bruce Geller for his iconic TV spy series.
I’d forgotten, however, what a delightfully weird movie Topkapi is…like a bastard cousin of early James Bond mutated by trippy sixties sensibilities, with fourth-wall violations and thick accents, technicolor visuals and unexpected plot turns, a sweeping international scope and a unique sense of humor. The characters here are not the humorless automatons of Mission: Impossible: Ustinov is a joy to watch as the hapless, bumbling Arthur Simpson….Mercouri is at once electric and creepy as the unapologetic nymphomaniac, Elizabeth Lipp…Robert Morley, as the quirky British egghead Cedric Page, is an amusing and unlikely criminal. The interactions of this not-very-Hollywood cast of characters are clever, riveting, and at times hilarious.
It’s a wonderful clash of comedy and intrigue, perhaps a bit slow at times (by modern standards), but ultimately one of those one-of-a-kind movies worth going out of your way to see.