I sat down to watch Topkapi
based on a confluence of two events: I had just bought the DVD in an attempt to add to my Dassin collection, but with no particular plans to immediately watch it, and the film had just been admiringly mentioned in an episode of the TV show Bones
. Not that that show could be called an arbiter of good taste (not even mine for watching what is, at best, a guilty pleasure), but the coincidence amused me and got me to pop in the DVD when a two-hour window of free time opened soon after.
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. Continue reading
My Blu-ray set makes a valiant effort to translate the word “rififi”, but can’t quite convey all of its aspects. That’s understandable if you consider that even the film itself requires a three-minute musical number to explain what it means, including an admission that it won’t be found in any dictionary. It’s Parisian gangster slang that expresses, among other things, violent conflict resulting out of a particularly male disposition for roughness and macho posturing.
Variations of “rififi” are plentiful in the film. It’s in the air in the very first scene, where a card game briefly threatens to spill over into violence because a character fresh out of prison doesn’t have enough money to continue playing. That individual, Tony, is the main character, an over-the-hill criminal who makes a half-hearted attempt to stay on the straight and narrow, but soon embraces his old life. The catalyst setting him on the path of wanting in on one last score is an encounter with his old girlfriend, who has naturally moved on to another underworld figure. Mildly apologetic, she expresses her willingness to help Tony out, which he takes as an invitation to whip her with his belt. In his eyes – and maybe in hers, since she just stands there and takes it -, that is the just punishment for her disloyalty. Having indulged in one kind of rififi, he’s ready for the next: the brazen burglary of a jewelry store with his old crew, who had just been waiting on his participation to get rolling.