Topkapi (film)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Topkapi (1964) is a heist film made by Filmways Pictures and distributed by United Artists. It was produced and directed by the emigre American film director, Jules Dassin. The film is based on Eric Ambler's novel The Light of Day (1962), adapted as a screenplay by Monja Danischewsky.

The film stars Melina Mercouri (who later became Dassin's wife), Maximilian Schell, Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley, Gilles Ségal and Akim Tamiroff.

The music score was by Manos Hadjidakis, the cinematography by Henri Alekan and the costume design by Theoni V. Aldredge.


The film opens with the glamorous and avaricious Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) visiting Istanbul. She sees a traveling fair which features replicas of treasures from the Topkapi Palace, and says enigmatically to herself that now she sees how "it" can be done. Next she cases the Topkapi itself, where she is clearly fascinated by the emerald-encrusted dagger of Sultan Mahmud I.

After leaving Turkey, she recruits her ex-lover, Swiss master-criminal Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell), to help her plan the theft of the dagger. Harper insists that they work only with "amateurs"—individuals with no police record. This includes Cedric Page (Robert Morley), an eccentric British master of all things mechanical, including security systems, as well as Giulio the Human Fly (Ségal), a mute acrobat whose role will be to steal the dagger while suspended from above, thus defeating the floor-mounted alarm.

More surprisingly, Harper and Lipp recruit Arthur Simon Simpson (Peter Ustinov)—a small-time hustler of Anglo-Egyptian parentage, now operating in Kavala, Greece, where he peddles fake antiques to the tourists and offers to show them the local nightlife. Without revealing his true purpose, Harper hires Simpson to drive a luxury American convertible into Turkey and deliver it to a hotel in Istanbul.

Unknown to Simpson, the car contains hidden explosives and firearms that the thieves plan to use in their burglary - they have set up the hapless Simpson as driver in case the border police search the car.

At the Turkish border, the police find that Simpson's (Egyptian) passport is out of date. They search the car, find the firearms and grill Simpson. The Turkish Secret Police deduce that the gang are plotting an assassination at a forthcoming military parade. Under threat of a death sentence, Simpson is recruited to spy on Harper and Lipp.

As part of the police ruse, Page, picking up the car in Istanbul, is told that only Simpson, who imported the car, is legally permitted to drive it in Turkey. Thus the gang are saddled with the "schmo" Harper had intended to dump.

As instructed, Simpson leaves notes in discarded cigarette boxes for his police handlers - but, being ignorant of the conspirators' true intentions, most of his intelligence is worthless: he informs the police, based on a conversation with a drunken cook (Tamiroff), that the group are Russian agents.

When the gang member who was to have supported Giulio from above during the robbery injures his hands, the gang reluctantly bring Simpson into the plot as a substitute. He in turn confesses to them that they are being watched by the police. Harper in response revises his plan and accelerates the timing of the burglary, arranging to give their police tails the slip at a big wrestling match.

That evening, while Lipp distracts the keeper of a nearby lighthouse so that Page can surreptitiously prevent his light from giving the burglars' position away, Harper, Simpson and Giulio break into the museum's treasury, steal the dagger, replace it with a replica, and exit without triggering the alarm.

The gang successfully deliver the dagger to Joseph, proprietor of the traveling fair display, who is assigned to smuggle the dagger out of the country as part of his collection of replicas. Unnoticed by the thieves, though, during the robbery a bird has flown through the window by which they entered, and is trapped inside when they close the window on their way out.

As part of Harper's plan to outsmart the police, he and his fellow gang members now go to police headquarters, to "reveal" their discovery of weapons behind a panel in the door of the car. When the police inspector asks Simpson to vouch for Harper and Lipp's whereabouts that day, Simpson throws in his lot with the thieves and backs up their alibi.

However, the alarm at the Topkapi is now triggered by the trapped bird, and soon the inspector is phoned with this news. In parallel, Simpson's final notes to the police, now on the inspector's desk, provide a connection (which Simpson himself had not understood) between the gang and the traveling fair which shows replicas of the Topkapi treasures. Putting two and two together, the inspector confidently informs Harper and the others that he now knows why they came to Turkey, because "a little bird told me".

The film closes with the gang in a Turkish prison. Irrepressible, Lipp begins to tell them of her fascination with the Russian Imperial Crown Jewels in the Kremlin...

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