TOPKAPI (1964): The proto-MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE? (Not exactly…)
In the comments to my recent review of Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, I mentioned (not for the first time on this blog) that the original Mission: Impossible TV series was partly inspired by the 1964 heist movie Topkapi. Since I’ve run out of M:I episodes to recap/review (until I can get my hands on the DVDs of the ’88 revival, which Netflix is taking its good time getting in stock), it occurred to me to check out Topkapi as a sort of adjunct to my review series. Fortunately, it is available for streaming on Netflix.
Topkapi was written by Monja Danischewsky, based on the novel The Light of Day by Eric Ambler, and directed by Jules Dassin. It stars Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, Maximilian Schell, and Robert Morley. Ustinov won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
And it’s very different from what I expected, very different from M:I. It’s more of a screwball comedy, opening with Mercouri talking directly to the audience to explain her goal, to steal a priceless emerald-encrusted dagger from the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. (Hey, I like it that she’s into emeralds.) Her character, going by the name Elizabeth Lipp, is a thief, but one who’s never been caught, nor has her old flame Walter Harper (Schell), whom she recruits to help her steal the dagger and replace it with a replica she’s created. He insists that they need to recruit a team of amateurs, people who also have no police records, since if a heist of this magnitude succeeds, the cops will be looking at the high-end thieves, all known. Here we can see the ancestry of the M:I trope of assembling a team of “amateur” spies — magician, supermodel, engineer, professional bodybuilder — for off-book, deniable missions too sensitive to leave a paper trail back to the government (though this implied concept was abandoned by the show soon enough).
The team they assemble consists of eccentric inventor Cedric Page (Morley) — sort of the “Barney” of the operation in M:I terms, though more like a spiritual ancestor to Blade Runner‘s Sebastian — plus the volatile strongman Hans (Jess Hahn) and the mute acrobat Giulio the Human Fly (Gilles Segal), who reminds me of the non-English-speaking contortionist in the George Clooney Ocean’s Eleven. (How many movies borrowed tropes from this movie, anyway?) The last “recruit” is the unwitting patsy (or “schmo,” as they call him) — Arthur Simpson (Ustinov), the world’s most hapless tour guide, whom they hire to drive a valuable rented car across the border to Istanbul, with some of their heist gear hidden in the door. They don’t plan on Simpson having an expired passport that gets him questioned and his car inspected at the Turkish border, revealing the hidden rifle and smoke grenades. The Turks arrest him, thinking he’s part of a terrorist plot to attack a major meeting of important officials, but his bumbling defense convinces them that he’s probably a dupe, so they let him prove it by spying for them, carrying on his assignment as though nothing happened. Once he delivers the car to Cedric, a cop working for the government tells Cedric that only the registered driver can drive the car under Turkish law, so Cedric is forced to bring Simpson with him to meet the other plotters. There’s a bunch of character-based wackiness that doesn’t amuse me, largely involving a drunken, incoherent male cook (Akim Tamiroff) who keeps coming onto Simpson and picking fights with Hans, or else involving the rather unattractive Mercouri playing a seductive vamp who claims to be a nymphomaniac.
It isn’t until nearly halfway through the movie that the heist begins to unfold and we begin to see some more elements relating to M:I. A notable one is when, before the heist, a fight with the cook leads to Hans getting his hands crushed in a door so he can’t play his part — a trope used with Wally Cox’s safecracker character in the M:I pilot. This requires them to bring Simpson into their confidence so he can fill Hans’s role of lowering Giulio into the museum on a rope. So Simpson lets slip that Turkish Security thinks they’re terrorists and is watching them, so they have to adjust the plan.
I guess the heist sequence itself, which kicks in during the final half-hour of the movie, is the main part that inspired M:I — and not just the show, as it was a direct inspiration for the famous lowered-on-a-wire sequence in the first Tom Cruise M:I movie. The meticulousness with which the planning and execution are shown step-by-step is the main inspiration. But at the same time, there’s a lot that’s different. These thieves are less of a well-oiled machine than the IMF, with lots of stumbles and hitches and improvisations and barely averted disasters as they execute the heist. The sequence is carried out with very little dialogue, like M:I, but with no music whatsoever throughout the entire heist, very unlike M:I. And the plan turns out to have one tiny but fatal flaw, so the outcome is rather different than it is in M:I.
Bottom line, I wasn’t crazy about the film. Even aside from not being the kind of film I was expecting, it was a little too weird and eccentric, and I really disliked Mercouri as the lead actress. And too many of the plot points depend on these supposed master thieves making stupid decisions. If they were going to pick Simpson as their dupe, they should’ve researched him more first and made sure his passport was valid. Worse, their decision to bring him aboard as a replacement for Hans makes no sense. We were shown that the team was assisted by at least one member of a carnival that had set up shop next to the Topkapi Museum (which, come to think of it, may have inspired the similar use of a carnival in M:I’s first two-parter “Old Man Out”), so if they needed a strongman, why not recruit one from the carnival, instead of pinning the success of their plan on a flabby middle-aged coward whose involvement brings them close to disaster time and time again? The plot just doesn’t add up. Maybe it’s not supposed to, maybe these characters are intended to be bumblers attempting something beyond their abilities, but that’s hard to reconcile with the premise that the masterminds are too good to have ever gotten caught. So it just didn’t work for me. I almost wish I hadn’t seen the film at all. The only thing I really gained from the experience was having my misconceptions about the film clarified. It’s not nearly as much a spiritual ancestor of Mission: Impossible as I was expecting.