Monday, August 18, 2014

The heists of Jules Dassin, part II: "...then as farce"


A completely necessary frolic, Topkapi is both inferior to its predecessor and a most welcome corrective to it.

Directed by Jules Dassin
Written by Monja Danichewsky (based on the novel The Light of Day by Eric Ambler)
With Melina Mercouri (Elizabeth Lipp), Max Schell (Walter Harper), Peter Ustinov (Arthur Simpson), Robert Morley (Cedric Page), Jess Hahn (Hans Fisher), and Gilles Segal (Giulio the Human Fly)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Nine years and, as will become apparent, one happy divorce later, Jules Dassin returned to the genre he helped define.  And if you didn't read the credits or look at the back of the box or check IMDB or do anything else to make yourself unavoidably aware of that fact, you might never guess it until, perhaps, the very climax of his latter film.

This is because Topkapi is the exact and very deliberate opposite of Rififi in every way.  They are as different as two heist films could possibly beexcept, you may say, they both take nonsense words as their titles, but this only proves that you're racist.

To begin with the most obvious departure, Rififi is in boxy black and white; Topkapi is in glorious 1.66:1 Technicolor.  Rififi is decisively local; Topkapi is cosmopolitan, and desperately wants you to know it.  Rififi is frankly outrageous in its contempt for womankind; Topkapi is so delighted by its notion of feminism that when it affirms its leading lady's self-professed nymphomania it means it, sincerely, as a compliment.  Contrariwise, Rififi still wants women; meanwhile, Topkapi never saw a man it didn't want to slather with oil and fuck absolutely rawRififi is a darkhearted noir about the burglary of a corner jewelry shop; Topkapi is a weightless thriller about stealing from a sultan.

"Are you done yet?"  I am not.

In Rififi, the heist is as silent as the tomb; in Topkapi, they talkin stage whispers and furious hisses, but they talk.  In Rififi, the incompetent partner is brutally executed, to emphasize the cruel creed of the protagonist; in Topkapi, the incompetent partner arguably is the protagonist, and certainly the movie comes to revolve around his blunderings.  Rififi concludes bleakly; Topkapi ends with a metanarrative joke so goofy you might wonder if you fell asleep and had a weird dream instead of finishing the film, but, no, you did not.

The biggest difference, though, is that Rififi is centered upon an immoral monster who, through cinematic black magic and narrative contrivance, we come to care about; Topkapi is about a bunch of dorks who are mostly harmless but, initially, rather annoying.

Topkapi: a feverish thriller such as the world has rarely seen.

Indeed, if one were forced to sum up the tone of Topkapi in a single word, it's "shrill."  If given two words?  "Intensely shrill."  From the gonzo opening that spells out the premise by way of a grating direct address, with an accompanying lightshow that could fuel ten thousand epileptics' products liability litigation, down to (at least) the "LOOK EVERYBODY IT'S ISTANBUL" montage, Topkapi comes across like a child who will do anything for attention.  It's the film equivalent of a toddler who first refuses to eat the spaghetti he expressly asked for, then he smashes the plate upon the floor, and finally, while you clean his mess and reconsider the ethics of the pre-Christian era, he sets the house on fire.  In his mind, this is one continuous spectrum of action, and it all makes sense.  Such is Dassin's Topkapi.

I swallowed my tongue and am seeking $75,000 in actual damages and $5 million in punitives.  Wait, we're suing MGM?  Shit.

So meet Elizabeth.  She's the one with the voice that strikes the resonant frequency of the human skeleton.  I was hoping that this was Melina Mercouri putting on a grotesque affectation, rather than merely an exaggeration of her real voice.  Well, anyway, don't smoke, kids.

Elizabeth is one of those top-flight international criminals that pulp fiction loves so much, and she has fixed her kleptomaniacal zeal upon the emerald-encrusted dagger of Mahmud I, presently on exhibition in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.  The palace has been a museum since Ataturk's revolution ended the Ottoman dynasty and changed the alphabet, but it is no less heavily defended than when it was the caliph's house.  If she wants the jewels, she'll need help.  Indeed, since her ultimate role in the heist is "the one who distracts a guard with a game of vaguely erotic backgammon," she'll need a lot of help.

She appears out of the night fog to ask her old friend Walter to join her.  Still in some kind of love with her, he immediately agrees to put together a team.  But Walter won't call upon professionals, becausedisregarding lucky exceptions like themselvesthe professionals are few, and known to the world's police forces.  Like a latterday pornographer, he wants amateurs.  He gets amateurs and then some.

Eventually implicated in this complicated plot is Arthur, whose only profession is being a loser.  He was only supposed to be the sucker who smuggled their heist gear across the Greco-Turkish border, but no plan survives contact with Peter Ustinov.  Arthur winds up deputized by the Turkish police, who misconstrue the burglar's kit as a terrorist's arsenal; he finds himself tempted once he discovers the real plan; and ultimately he becomes a full partner in Elizabeth and Walter's heist, alongside Cedric (the eccentric electronics genius), Hans (the circus strongman), and Giulio (the acrobat, and the film's most nutritious but not only serving of man-candy).

Here's the thing.  Every character in this movie is kind of a jackassexcept maybe Cedric, whose noisome machines stand in for the absent obnoxiousness of his character, and Giulio, who, as a mute, is at least quiet.

But something very interesting happens around the time the whole team gets fully settled in Istanbul.  I don't think that any of them actually become less aggravating.  In any event, "aggravating" is a somewhat unfair label, as it's mainly Dassin blaring style in your face, rather than the actors or the characters themselvesbut once they come together, they seem to balance each other's foibles.  At almost the precise same moment, Dassin settles down himself; or maybeand more likelyI finally became acclimatized to his zany renunciation of film noir and all its evils.  At the outset of the second hour, I suddenly came to retroactively enjoy the first.  In hindsight, the jokes became funnier, and the excesses, forgivable.

It doesn't hurt that even when it's ridiculously excessive, Topkapi remains a determinedly colorful film, literally as well as figuratively.  Sometimes it's too much even for me (which is pretty damning coming from someone who ranks Speed Racer somewhere amongst his top films of all time), but it can be gorgeous too.

I doubt a dress has ever looked so green in the history of eyes.

If Elizabeth doesn't really have a great deal of value to the heist, the same can't be said about Mercouri to the film, who anchors the narrative firmly in the land of cartoonishly sexy adventure, rather than the bullshit comic caper Ustinov keeps pulling it toward.

Then as well as now, there's some kind of confused, male-centered, fantasy-based progressivism to Elizabeth's role: a middle-aged sexpot celebrated by every last man within the film.  The progressive part is that there is no Stifler to explain to you the concept of a MILF; it's just taken as read.  Throw in Walter, too: his reaction to her wildly indiscriminate carnalityshe speaks favorably of Ustinov's eyelashesis to shrug and smile, as if thinking, "Isn't it nice that my girlfriend wants to blow everybody in the room?"  And, as this is sexy adventure fiction, it does wind up seeming tolerably nice indeedinfinitely nicer, to be sure, than the same year's product from Albert Broccoli's sexy adventure fiction factory, James Bond Rapes a Lesbian (retitled Goldfinger shortly before its premier).

Even Mercouri's voice, truly unappealing in itselfin stark contrast to her other, finer aspectswinds up an asset, suggesting in its rasping tones a lifetime of hedonism that has not exhausted her, but rather deepened her desire for more of everything, especially men, and especially emeralds.  It's easy to wind up adoring Mercouri, since her every frame is infused with Jules Dassin's own adoration for his soon-to-be-second-wife, with whom he remained until her death in 1994.  (Mercouri was a cool lady herself, and in a far less ridiculous way.  She spoke for women's rights, struck out against neo-fascism, was elected to the Greek parliament, and served in a cabinet-level post.  The more you know.)

For better or worse, however, Elizabeth is more glamor than gratification.  Yet he who craves bare bodies need not be deprivedunless he is a he, and also straight, but it's not entirely clear that Topkapi was made for him in the first place.  In fact, I'm not sure you can say Elizabeth isn't a stalking horse for the (gay) male gaze.  But either way it's a lot less stifling than Victim's endless speeches only three years priorand as some kind of impartial observer I found it all sort of weirdly enjoyable.  For the true conoisseur of flesh, then, behold Gilles Segal, who could do an acrobatic handspring right into 2014 and still be very popular:

I'm even greener than that dress.

But there are connoisseurs and there are gluttons, and it's all a matter of temperament.  For them, we offer an army of midcentury strongmen wrestling in oil and dirt.  Their spectacle effectively drains the blood from the brains of Turkey's policemen during a key, and extraordinarily detailed, scene:

Now that hold can't be legal.

Haha, men, right?

But the keyest scene of all, perhaps the keyest scene of Dassin's career, is coming soon.  If Mercouri is Topkapi's central spirit of adventure and Ustinov its goofy sense of humor, it's Max Schell's squarish, efficient Swissman whovitallymanages to hold secure the heist film that keeps trying to get away.  (And, yes, innocuous ethnic humor between crackers is one of Topkapi's stocks in trade.  It's also orientalist and stupid, but the degree to which you find it orientalist and stupid depends heavily on the extent you consider Turks to be European; in fairness they were far more integrated into the continent at the time.)

Topkapi's heist is perfection indeed.  There's a reason that Brian De Palma ripped it off wholesale in Mission: Impossible; and there's a reason that the NOC list heist in Mission: Impossible was, for half a decade, synonymous with action-adventure filmmaking.  If De Palma even improved upon itwith more electronic obstacles, with a visual coda that I'll probably still remember when I forget my first girlfriend's name, and with production design from 2001: A Space Odysseyit is only on the order of a few percent.  And it's possible it isn't even better at all.  More complicated, and adding a new element of viscerally physical danger, I don't hesitate too much to say Topkapi's heist is a hair better than its analogue in Rififi.  That is saying something indeed...

...but it's gotta be said.  Even if it's comparing apples to some kind of as-yet unidentified plant.

Topkapi itself is not perfection.  I cannot, in good conscience, elevate the film as a whole above its predecessor.  Yet while Rififi will become only more offensive and unpleasant with every step we take into the stronger loving world of the future, Topkapi will remain, forever, the exact same fun, frivolous nonsense it was back in 1964.  Yes, it's too loose and lurid for its own good a lot of the time.  Yes, its overly enthusiastic style is challenging, to say the least.  Yes, I'm pretty sure that guy is getting a handjob.  But these flaws, if they even be flaws, are also features: part and parcel to Topkapi's charm.  And Topkapi's is a charm that is crystallized, like a perfect emerald, by the pristine thriller mechanics of its new and improved heist.  Topkapi is perhaps too ruinously unfocused to be great, but it's too weird and too livelyand, when it really counts, too disciplinedto be deigned anything much less.

Score: 7/10

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