Monday, February 4, 2013

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Casting Coup Month: Topkapi

Best Supporting Actor - Peter Ustinov (WON)

Topkapi is a fun film. It's a light caper flick, in which a couple of master thieves, Elizabeth Lippe and Walter Harper, plot the theft of the Istanbul emeralds from the Sultan Mahmud I statue at Topkapi Palace in Turkey. With the help of a mute acrobat, a German strongman, and a British electronics expert, they hatch the perfect crime -- until they engage bumbling amateur Arthur Simon Simpson as an unwitting accomplice. Complications, hilarity and some thrills ensue.

Based on a novel by Eric Ambler, this was director Jules Dassin's follow-up to Phaedra, the financially disappointing follow-up to his earlier Never on Sunday. The latter had been a hit in 1960, earning Melina Mercouri a Best Actress win at the Cannes Film Festival and nomination at the Oscars, but Phaedra was a two-hour adaptation of a Greek tragedy that just did not click in the States.  
Topkapi, fortunately, was considerably lighter fare, and featured an international cast of familiar faces: Mercouri returned for her fifth collaboration with her director-husband, with recent Academy Award Winners Maximilian Schell and Peter Ustinov taking the lead roles of Thief and Bungler, respectively. Dependable character actors Robert Morley and Akim Tamaroff also joined, with the rest of the cast made up of American expatriate Jess Hahn, French actor/acrobat Gilles Segal and Dassin's son from his first marriage, Joe.

The film itself is a joy to watch, a perfect example of a caper film not only working, but exploding with wit and creativity -- and a purring, kitten-with-the-cream performance from Melina Mercouri. But despite a Golden Globe nod, her scene-stealing turn was not destined to get her another date with Oscar Night. No, that honor was reserved for previous winner Peter Ustinov, the only member of the cast or crew to be so honored. Indeed, not only did he get Topkapi its sole nomination -- it's thanks to him that the film can boast ACADEMY AWARD WINNER on its posters and DVD art. But while hr truly was the most deserving of his fellow nominees, it's still one that leaves a bad taste in one's mouth: Ustinov was the lead. Hell, he's second-billed, below Mercouri and above Schell. But not everyone can win second Oscars honestly, and if the Academy is willing to play along, well...

It's hard to get cross about it, though. Topkapi is so intoxicating, and at times so bizarre, that to begrudge it its win is to miss out on an influential and entertaining piece of cinema. I am surprised that in the wake of the successes of The Italian Job and Ocean's Eleven remakes, Topkapi did not get a turn. After all, it provides the opportunity for an international ensemble to work off of each other; assembled correctly, you're guaranteed boffo international box office.

So here's my assemblage:

Who is He: The connection at the traveling carnival. He has a replica of the sultan and his dagger, which will be used to smuggle the real thing out of the country.

Originally played by:
Joseph Dassin (He Who Must Die, Lady L)

My Choice:
Simon Abkarian (The Truth About Charlie, Casino Royale)

Who is He: The cook. Believes everyone but Simpson is a Russian spy.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (The General Died at Dawn, For Whom the Bell Tolls), Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actor (For Whom the Bell Tolls)
Akim Tamiroff (Anastasia, Touch of Evil)

My Choice:
Omid Djalili (The Mummy, Sex and the City 2)

Who is He: The muscle of the operation, holding the acrobat thief's rope up with his strength. Until his hands are crushed, I mean.

Originally played by:
Jess Hahn (The Trial, The Grand Duel)

My Choice: SAG Award Winner for Best Ensemble (Inglourious Basterds)
Til Schweiger (New Year's Eve, This Means War)

Who is He: An Englishman, the gadget wiz of the operation. He's the one who learns all the little tricks of the museum, and how to bypass them.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Marie Antoinette), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?)
Robert Morley (Beat the Devil, The Alphabet Murders)

My Choice: Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor - Drama (Wilde), SAG Award Winner for Best Ensemble (Gosford Park)
Stephen Fry (Peter's Friends, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story)
Too easy.

Who is He: Part of the brains of the operation, a dashing Swiss master thief. It's his idea to execute the mission using amateurs.

Originally played by: Academy Award/Golden Globe Winner for Best Actor [Drama], BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Foreign Actor (Judgment at Nuremburg)
Maximilian Schell (The Man in the Glass Booth, The Brothers Bloom)

My Choice: Academy Award/BAFTA Award/Golden Globe/SAG Award Winner for Best Actor [Musical/Comedy] (The Artist)
Jean Dujardin (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, The Players)
It's time for him to be on a role this side of the Atlantic, a la Cotillard or Waltz. His less severe presence could bring a different vibe to this role that would be interesting.

Who is She: The brains of the operation, a sensual woman in love with wealth and the trappings thereof.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Actress (Never on Sunday), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Foreign Actress (Never on Sunday, Phaedra), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actress - Drama and Musical/Comedy (Phaedra, Topkapi, Promise at Dawn)
Melina Mercouri (He Who Must Die, Once Is Not Enough)

My Choice: Academy Award/Golden Globe/SAG Award Winner for Best Supporting Actress (Girl, Interrupted), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Actress (Changeling)
Angelina Jolie (Beowulf, The Good Shepherd)
I yearn for the fun Jolie of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a cut above the doldrums of The Tourist. She's lovely, exotic, sometimes fun, and an intoxicating presence.

Who is He: A petty con-man who is absolutely dismal at his job. Winds up as the unwitting accomplice of the con-men who are good at their jobs, with his car used to smuggle in explosives and firearms for the theft. Customs picks him up, searches the car, figures this international group is plotting an assassination, and engages Simpson as a spy. He's not very good at that, either.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Spartacus, Topkapi), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Actor (Death on the Nile) and Best British Screenplay (Billy Budd), DGA Award Nominee for Best Director (Romanoff and Juliet, Billy Budd), Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Quo Vadis), WGA Award Nominee for Best Written American Drama (Billy Budd) and Best Written American Comedy (Hot Millions)
Peter Ustinov (The Sundowners, Logan's Run)

My Choice:
Ricky Gervais (Night at the Museum, The Invention of Lying)
Stuttering English buffoonery.

Best Actor - Jean Dujardin, Ricky Gervais
Best Actress - Angelina Jolie
Best Supporting Actor - Stephen Fry


MovieNut14 said...

I approve of the casting of Fry and Gervais.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

MovieNut14 - And here I thought Gervais would be a tough sell! What of the others?