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.

The African Queen (1951)

Steamboat Bogie

The African Queen is one of those perfect, anti-boring and instantly emotional engaging films that you never want to end. I never did I want to see Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn leave that tiny broken down old boat in an African rain forest – The African Queen is the film I measure all “man and woman who hate each other at the start but gradually fall in love” movies against. With the power of these actors, this transition comes off completely organically without a contrivance insight – even the point at which they fall in love can be pinpointed to an exact moment.

In showing how he was one of the most adaptable actors in cinema, Bogart leaves his usual urban dwellings and into the African jungle in the role of Charlie Allnut – the scruffy, carefree canuck of whom the recently commenced Great War in Europe means nothing to him nor does he appear to grasp its importance. It’s not until Rose (Katharine Hepburn) awakens a patriotic duty out of him does he perform his part to take out the German army. The scene in which Bogart goofs around with his intimation of various animals is surely the silliest moment of his career, but it’s all good fun – although I do have to ask am I the only one who gets some Bugs Bunny vibes with his performance here?

Katharine Hepburn’s Rose is one tough dame and does not appear to be a very likeable character during the first portion of the film. She doesn’t treat Charlie with any respect because he won’t agree with her demands, takes him granted and is interfering with what ain’t her property! But she’s Kate, she can do whatever she wants and get away with it, and we still love her for it (or at least that’s the case with me). Ultimately she makes more of a gentleman out of the scruffy, alcoholic slob – showing behind every great man is a great woman. Hepburn often played roles tailored towards her oddball personality, so I wonder if she held any hesitation portraying a Christian missionary and a more conservative, prudish woman (the film even features a recreation of the Walls of Jericho from It Happened One Night).

Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography has such striking vibrancy, a style distinctive from Hollywood Technicolor and one which captures Bogart and Hepburn’s rough, beat-up faces (devoid of any make-up) in such detail. Along with the sound effects of nature in the background and the occasional bit of wildlife, The African Queen is as close as a movie can get to make me feel like I’m a riverboat in East Africa. The African Queen was one of my earliest exposures to classic cinema, aeons before these movies took over my life and although I only saw the remaining 40 minutes, it stuck with me. In particular, the scene in which our duo starts getting eaten by insects; that scene always gives me the heebie-jeebies (even if it’s not a great special effect). The African Queen is within that rare category of films in which every viewing feels like a unique viewing experience, no matter how many times I watch it.