As told in a somewhat psychedelic introductory sequence, an apparently wealthy “cougar” (Melina Mercouri) with few sexual or criminal inhibitions and a love for emeralds has her sights set on a new object of fascination: a jewel-encrusted dagger showcased in an Istanbul museum. To acquire it, she contacts an on-again-off-again lover (Maximilian Schell) and hatches a plan. It is decided to rely on amateurs instead of professional thieves to steal the weapon, in order to escape unwanted attention by investigators.
In a different movie, another reason for that might be that the more naive and inexperienced colleagues would make it easier to betray and dispose of them afterwards; this idea is briefly implied by the movie, but not spelled out explicitly or executed, and wouldn’t fit its tone, anyway, which is far too light-hearted for such a noir-ish twist.
The final heist sequence itself, about 15 minutes in length, deserves its legendary stature (it is clearly the inspiration for the now more famous scene in Mission Impossible with Tom Cruise dangling above a pressure-sensitive floor) and remains thrilling despite some realism issues both regarding the planning of the heist (e.g., how the thieves know so much about the interior, presumably off-limits layout of the museum) and its execution (e.g., precise coordination of different teams without electronic communication, some physical mechanics).
However, this “centrepiece” occurs near the end of the movie, and is preceded (mostly) not by a recruitment of the gang (most of them, Schell’s character simply seems to know) and planning/preparation sessions (which could have made the heist itself more credible), but by the antics of a hapless small-time swindler and unlikely main character played by Peter Ustinov (in an apparently Oscar-worthy performance, bafflingly). Watching him get caught in the cougar’s scheme is mildly amusing, but his bumbling, as well as that of a farcical sketch of a character who befriends him makes the movie seem unfocused as well as padded, as if there wasn’t enough story for the full two hours required by the studio. There are also numerous superfluous detours to demonstrate that the film really was shot on location in Turkey; granted, they add some local colour (particular a homoerotic wrestling festival), but have little bearing on the film’s actual storyline. The plotting of the film, alas, is nowhere near as tight as that of the thieves.
There’s nothing wrong with making comedy out of crime – most modern heist films are full of humour, after all – but Topkapi isn’t all that funny, certainly not all the times it seems to want to be. It’s no doubt theoretically interesting to watch a nominally American heist movie populated exclusively with European characters, but the film never really does anything with that variety other than making the Swiss guy calculating, the German guy an easily-offended brute and the Italian guy enamoured by sports cars. Mercouri’s casting can be considered unusual from a modern perspective, in that at then 43-years-old, she would be considered too old to play the female lead today, and she comes across as quite a bit older even than that on my admittedly not very flattering DVD transfer. Her behaviour – at one point, she calls herself a nymphomaniac, though we never see much more than kisses – was presumably risqué for the time, and she has a nice laugh. But there’s nothing else to her, nor to the other characters assembled for the heist. Only Ustinov’s protagonist gets a few shades, the rest are pretty flat cyphers. This, too, adds to the movie’s lack of weight.
Ultimately, Topkapi is entertaining enough, but a far cry for the same director’s masterpiece Rififi, which has stronger characters and a more efficient structure.