Before everybody else started making comic variations on his classic heist/caper pic RIFIFI/’54, Jules Dassin beat them to the punch with his own comic variation; . . . he beat them in other ways, too. Dassin’s wife Melina Mercouri is a bit much as mistress of the heist (her throaty baritone reduced to a raspy croak), but the rest of the international cast is ripe & delightful. Maximilian Schell, smooth & handsome, gives one of his most relaxed perfs as the brainy organizer; Robert Morley is roly-poly perfection as an eccentric tech-man; Akim Tamiroff gets away with his ‘feelthy’ drunken house servant; & Peter Ustinov is flat-out phenomenal as a small-time con-artist, coerced into playing on two teams when the cops get clued in. Ustinov didn’t always work this hard, but this is one of the great audience-pleasing turns in film; more than that, he touchingly manages to be human-scaled & epic at one & the same time in a manner not seen since Raimu was making his French classics or Will Kempe was working for Shakespeare @ The Globe. It’s all wonderfully shot by Henri Alekan, who gets the most out some great Istanbul locations, and the basic plot, from Eric Ambler’s novel, is unusually neat & clever. In the nail-biting third act, Dassin turns the actual heist into a real time suspense marathon that will have you gasping & crying out loud. Those rooftop camera moves! TOPKAPI is the very definition of ‘civilized entertainment’ and, thanks to Ustinov, even a bit more. (And don’t miss the gorgeous stylized end credits.)
DOUBLE-BILL: So many to choose from! But comparing THE PINK PANTHER films or GAMBIT/’66 or those OCEANS 11; 12; 13 to this is like comparing Abbott & Costello to Laurel & Hardy. So, why not try more of the real thing, Dassin’s original (if still shockingly nasty) RIFIFI.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Peter Ustinov’s decision to bail on Blake Edwards’ THE PINK PANTHER/’64 just before they started shooting makes more sense when you remember that this one was already set up.