Topkapi (1964)

Mission Unpossible

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Topkapi is one of those movies in which it is fun to look in the background at the colourful array of gadgets and gizmos. The film’s sets are a thing of beauty, full of beautiful, understated colours. This is the kind of movie to watch to watch on a hot summer’s day or to escape the winter blues. The movie was filmed on location and acts as a time capsules for 1960’s Turkey and Greece, and capturing in a documentary like for the nitty, gritty street corners of Istanbul.

The production code was all but gone in 1964, thus the movie is able to explain and able to show in detail how they are able to commit their crime with explanations of the security system in place and how to bypass them, as well as their undercover scheme and the heist plan; I just delight in that kind of exposition. There were the days before security cameras, therefore they aren’t an obstacle to get around. I also imagine they probably could have chosen to have the criminals get away scot-free if they had desired.

Peter Ustinov steals the show, in one of those performances which bring me levels of respect towards an actor playing a loveable sucker and the most unconvincing conman who can’t fool anyone to save his life. Oh, the other hand I’ve heard reviewers criticise the casting of a 44-year-old Melina Mercouri as a flirt who is not very attractive, I disagree. I find it’s an interesting character dynamic to have a somewhat maniacal nymphomaniac who isn’t particularly attractive yet has a lover who appears to legitimately sees something in her.

Topkapi may have the best heist sequence I’ve seen in a film. By this point in the film I’ve already attached a strong emotional interest in these characters, but during the heist itself, the characters played by Ustinov and Maximillian Schell develop an unexpected emotional bond which raises the stakes higher than they are. With a clumsy fool who is afraid of heights, a lighthouse being controlled from afar by other operatives and precise rope movements to moving an entire glass enclosure, I’m left with that glorious feeling of clenching your hands when something almost goes wrong.

Gambit (1966)

Expectation/Reality

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Like the other notable twist-laden Michael Caine movie Sleuth I can’t say much about Gambit without spoiling it. During the first 25 minutes, I was doubting if I was even going to enjoy the film. The characters appeared to be forgettable and two dimensional. Michael Caine outwits everyone but in an uninteresting manner while Shirley MacLaine never speaks nor shows any emotion or vulnerability with Herbert Lom plays an unimaginative caricature of a reclusive, eccentric millionaire. Like Sleuth on first viewing I thought that film was making a mistake during a certain section; with Gambit I felt the same way about the first section of the movie.

However, when it is revealed these first 25 minutes are just the idealised scenario for a heist played out in Michael Caine’s head I had the biggest smile on my face and the reaction of “You clever bastards!”. All of a sudden this seemingly boring film became fascinating with the scenario I had just seen played out now occurring again with a welcome sense of realism and with interesting, flawed characters, with much of the humour stemming from the differences between fact and fiction. It reminded of that popular internet meme ‘expectation/reality’ and came off to me like a satire of sorts on unimaginative writing and characters. Watching the film a second time I can now spot the moment of foreshadowing such as Michael Caine saying to his accomplice “Now pay close attention”. Of course, it wouldn’t be a heist movie without suspense and does the third act deliver, full of nail-biting moments and clever solutions.

Released in 1966 just prior to the rise of the New Hollywood movement, Gambit sees the final days of that distinctive old Hollywood glamour. Gambit is a very exotic movie at that with Shirley MacLaine being presented in the image of a goddess throughout and even her more common looking attire during the heist at the end is exceedingly stylish. Plus who can look more dapper as a cat burglar than Michael Caine? The back and forth between Caine and MacLaine is pure heaven. There are few other actresses with as playful an on-screen persona as Shirley MacLaine while Caine gets annoyed by her giddy, childlike attitude. I don’t care how many films I see which contain the “they hate each other but secretly love each other” dynamic, as long as it’s between a screen pairing with superb chemistry then I’ll never tire of seeing it.

How To Steal a Million (1966)

Precious Venus!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

William Wyler is one of my very favourite directors and this being his third last film of a forty year career is a testament to the phenomenal director he was. Wyler didn’t direct many comedies, and with a comedy as perfect as How To Steal a Million that’s a crying shame. In fact, the last straight-up comedy he directed was 31 years earlier with The Gay Deception and the Ernst Lubitsch inspired The Good Fairy. How To Steal a Million defiantly owes something to Ernst Lubitsch. The character’s interactions have that Lubitsch touch while the European setting and the high society elegance are unmistakably Lubitsch. Speaking of elegance, does this movie have style! At the beginning of the film, we see Audrey Hepburn driving an unusually small car, wearing sunglasses and all white apparel; setting the tone for one heck of an eye-pleasing film.

Since How to Steal a Million was made after the demise of Hollywood’s production code and the character’s we’re rooting for are essentially criminals it did surprise me that they didn’t let the character’s get away with their actions at the end of the film. Peter O’Toole (one of Hepburn’s few age-appropriate leading man) shows that he could be as suave and debonair as the likes of William Powell. I often say this with a lot of primarily dramatic actors; I wish he could have done more comedies. It can’t be easy to ask the person whose house you were in the process of robbing to give you a lift home in a perfectly convincing manner.

The robbery process itself makes want to shout “genius” at the screen. The manner in which the heist is pulled of is so inventive and suspenseful as all hell. This was the days before CCTV so their plan probably wouldn’t work nowadays. How to Steal a Million is one of the rare comedies which is consistently funny from start to finish; almost without a laugh-free minute.