Monday, April 6, 2009

Topkapi (1964)

I've been reading the winners of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Best Novel awards since June of 2007 (I'm up to 1988 now; they began in 1954). Whenever possible, I've also been watching films made from the winning books. Often I've been disappointed in the film version of a book I've enjoyed, but this is not one of those times. Topkapi (1964), directed by Jules Dassin and based on Eric Ambler's book The Light of Day (1963, Edgar Best Novel 1964), is faithful to the book in its essentials, with changes made appropriately for the different medium. Like the book, it was thoroughly enjoyable.

The story is that Elizabeth (Melina Mercouri), an international jewel thief, challenges her friend and sometime lover Walter (Maximilian Schell) to help her steal a fabulous jeweled dagger from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. He agrees, with the proviso that only amateurs be enlisted to help them, since amateurs will not have police records. Part of their plan is to get a car in which a rifle and smoke grenades are hidden from Greece into Turkey. To this end they hire Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov), a half-English, half-Egyptian unsuccessful conman. Through various events, Simpson is soon much more deeply involved in a number of roles than anyone expected.

At first I found Mercouri's performance a bit over the top, but I guess she grew on me, and the joie de vivre she brought to the part was perfect for her character. Maximilian Schell was his urbane self, portraying a character whose ability to think on his feet was astounding. But the standout performance was Peter Ustinov's. Both in the book and the film, Arthur Simpson is portrayed as one of life's losers and not a very charming person; he deludes himself more often than he fools anyone else and he has few redeeming qualities. He's cowardly and of low moral fiber. Yet he is somehow endearing, and we end up hoping that things will go well for him. From his initial appearance with his imperfectly-tucked in shirt, to his realistic performance as a man terrified of heights who must hop about the roofs of the Topkapi Palace, Ustinov perfectly portrayed Arthur Simpson. I found it interesting that Topkapi brought Ustinov an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role because in the book, the focus is on Simpson; and because I'd read the book first, I focused on Simpson while watching the film as well.

The added attractions in Topkapi are, of course, the beautiful scenery and atmospheric scenes in Greece and Turkey, especially the all-day wrestling event which gives the thieves some cover for their activities.

If you've never seen Topkapi, I'd urge you to do so any time you are in the mood for a great caper movie with very little violence. And read the book, too!

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