Topkapi (1964)

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I’ve just had a great idea – something I’ve been looking for a long time… a very long time. Beautiful thief Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) and her ex-lover, Swiss criminal genius Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) put together a plan to steal an emerald-encrusted dagger from Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace with the assistance of larger than life Heath Robinson-type mechanical genius Cedric Page (Robert Morley). As part of their amateur acrobatic crew, they hire small-time con-man Anglo-Egyptian Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov) as their driver and fall guy. When the Turkish secret police capture Simpson at the border with a dodgy passport, they persuade him to spy on the gang, mistakenly believing that they’re Communist agents plotting an assassination… French-American director Jules Dassin had already perfected the heist movie with Rififi but everything here is played for laughs even if the scenes with the dubiously tranny charms of his wife Mercouri as the jewel-obsessed magpie are a little more on the forced side and overlong. The pitch is different from the Eric Ambler source novel The Light of Day where Simpson’s voice prevails but the heist itself has been enormously influential, viz. Mission:  Impossible and it was one of the top Sixties crime capers. Gilles Segal is terrific as the mute human fly whose super abilities charge the theft and Akim Tamiroff amusing as the cook. At this distance it all looks a little fake, rather like the team itself – and the recording parrot! Ustinov is very good as the stool pigeon whose intelligence notes to the police need decoding. At the end it seems this is all about a squawking bird. Dassin himself appears as the proprietor of the travelling show intended to transport the dagger across the Turkish border at the conclusion and there are some diversionary oily homoerotic wrestling scenes in an arena which should appeal to the Putinesque. Written by Monja Danischewsky.

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Gallipoli (1981)

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How fast can you run? How fast are you going to run? How odd that in 1981 two period  films about athletes should have a contemporary soundtrack for the running sequences … for this was the year that also brought Britflick Chariots of Fire with a Vangelis score, released 6 months earlier. It’s World War 1. Teenage Western Australian sprinter Archy (Mark Lee) persuades rival Frank (Mel Gibson) to join up with him and an extended period of time focuses on their training for the ANZACs in Egypt. When we get to the Turkish battlefield we can feel the heat and dust and our immersion is in no little part due to the production and sound design and editing, a marvel of achievement. There might be those who carp at some historical inaccuracies about the Battle of the Nek but for Australians this episode of senseless killing looms large in the psyche and was revisited recently by Russell Crowe in his directing debut, The Water Diviner. Playwright David Walliamson’s screenplay was inspired by a book by Bill Gammage on the subject: we can infer that the purpose of the sprinters in the trenches to communicate with the Poms has an allegorical function beyond the immediately dramatic. Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene is used to extraordinary effect amongst all the other classical pieces and new music by Brian May (the Australian composer who scored Mad Max). Russell Boyd’s cinematography is simply superb. Gibson of course became a megastar on the strength of this and Mad Max. It was a tough film to get funded and Weir’s initial proposed story did not go down well. Rupert Murdoch came to the rescue. Peter Weir is a great director who makes incredibly poetic mainstream films and doesn’t work enough as far as I’m concerned. I love everything he does. You will not forget the freeze frame finale in a hurry.