Topkapi (1964)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Melina Mercouri, Maximillian Schell, Peter Ustinov, Jessica Hahn
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

’Topkapi’ is a 1964 heist film from director Jules Dassin, whose earlier ’Rififi’ is widely hailed as a classic of the genre. While ’Rififi’ is a very dark and serious film, ’Topkapi’ is much more light-hearted and comical in nature and there are surprisingly very few similarities between the two films other than the fact that both are quite entertaining.

Melina Mercouri stars as Elizabeth Lipp, a sultry thief who has never been caught in the act. With her cohort and former lover, Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell), she sets about recruiting a team of unknown specialists to pull off the theft of an emerald-encrusted dagger from the Topkapi museum in Istanbul, Turkey.

Their plans get off to a rocky start when their handpicked patsy, Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov), is intercepted at the border and used by Turkish security to infiltrate the group that they assume to be made up of international terrorists. But before long small-time con artist Simpson is pulled into the scheme and the grand heist is once again on.

’Topkapi’ is very much a film of the 1960s and some modern viewers may be put off by Greek star Melina Mercouri’s over-the-top performance and early asides to the camera or the overly long foray into the art of Turkish wrestling. But the film really does come together with a wonderful cast, exotic locations, and a good old-fashioned heist done without the use of lasers and other such cinematic cop-outs. This film served as the inspiration for the classic ’Mission: Impossible’ television show but has very little in common with the modern theatrical films of the same name save for the obligatory ’man hanging from a cable with alarms all around’ scenes.

’Topkapi’ is presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen format. MGM’s policy is to anamorphically enhance films with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 or larger so this transfer is only letterboxed. It’s clear that no new restoration work was done for this DVD release but the image is still of decent enough quality. The picture is fairly sharp with nice, vibrant colors. There is a bit of film grain evident and some scenes were pulled from less than stellar source elements as they look much worse than the film as a whole. The biggest gripe about this transfer is the fact that there are numerous physical blemishes that at times become far too distracting. Still, the movie remains enjoyable and these minor imperfections never linger for long.

Audio comes in English and French Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mixes. Unfortunately, the soundtrack is in even worse shape than the video as there is frequent distortion especially whenever Manos Hadjidakis’s wonderful musical score rises to a crescendo. Dialogue is usually clear but there are many instances where English subtitles would have been a help as some passages are overwhelmed by the sound effects and heavy accents of the actors.

The only extra is a very lively theatrical trailer hosted by Melina Mercouri.

’Topkapi’ is a wonderfully entertaining film that serves as a reminder of what a classic heist film should be all about — a crew of specialists pulling off an impossible job with only their wits, skills, and a bit of luck to see them through. The comedic angle is also played up to good effect and it’s no wonder that Peter Ustinov won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role as the insecure, but ultimately greedy, Arthur Simpson.

MGM’s new DVD offers up adequate audio and video quality but the lack of an anamorphic transfer is sure to be a deal-breaker for some potential buyers. Still, fans of classic caper films should find ’Topkapi’ to their liking and even the less than perfect presentation did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the film.