Topkapi (1964): 007 connected heist movie

26 JUNE 2023

JBC rating: *****

James Bond Connections (1):

  • Assistant Director Tom Pevsner (Bond Associate / Executive Producer, various 1981 – 1995).

There are James Bond influences galore in the superb 1964 comedy thriller Topkapi, a highly successful adaptation of Eric Ambler’s excellent novel The Light of Day (1961). Both novel and film follow a criminal gang plotting to steal a fabulous emerald encrusted dagger from the eponymous museum in Istanbul. As Andrew Lycett details in his 1995 biography Ian Fleming, English thriller writer Eric Ambler was both a friend and a key influence for the author, most notably in his novel From Russia with Love (1956). Ironically, in Topkapi the Bond influence comes full circle as French director Jules Dassin’s classic film exhibits numerous elements clearly inspired by the then new EON franchise. In a further twist, the film would prove a huge cultural influence in the wider spy genre itself, not least the Topkapi-inspired Mission: Impossible television series and its later cinematic incarnation.

The story opens with professional thief Elizabeth Lipp (sexy and eccentric Melina Mecouri, director Dassin’s wife) enlisting her ex-lover Walter Harper (handsome German leading man Maximillian Schell, above right) to help assemble a team to steal the bejewelled dagger. In the first of many Bond influences, Harper is introduced dressed in black tie while secretly sporting a revolver (above). Elizabeth and Walter next visit their eccentric inventor contact Cedric Page, amusingly played by the English character actor Robert Morley. Page is the film’s Q figure and the presence of his numerous gadgets (none of which appear in the novel) are clearly inspired by the technology in From Russia with Love (1963). Some, including a remote-control cat and an electronic parrot, anticipate the overt humour present in the EON series from Goldfinger (1964) onwards.

Topkapi soon focuses on Walter and Elizabeth’s next recruit, small-time conman Arthur Simpson (above), in a hilariously shifty and cowardly portrayal by famed English actor Peter Ustinov, for which he won an Oscar. Arthur is a classic Eric Ambler protagonist, a victim of both the villains and the police who nevertheless engages the sympathy of the audience. The plot takes off when Simpson, arrested and turned informant, is forced into being a police spy and betraying the gang’s activities to the Turkish authorities (crucially, Walter and Elizabeth have not shared full details of their scheme with Arthur). As in the novel, the Turkish security services initially fear Walter and his team are plotting to assassinate the then autocratic government. During his interrogation by the Turkish police, Arthur is seated in a darkened room with an overhead grill (above), echoing Ken Adam’s memorable set for the scene in Dr No (1962) where Professor Dent speaks to the offscreen villain. Furthering the espionage connection, Arthur’s covert messages to his Turkish security handlers at first report the gang as likely Russian spies.


Eric Ambler had used Turkey as a setting for some of his most famous novels long before he penned The Light of Day. Indeed, in From Russia with Love (1956) – the most Ambler-esque of the novels – Fleming’s Bond takes Eric Ambler’s classic Istanbul-set thriller The Mask of Demetrios (1938) to Turkey to help him understand the city. Like the superb 1963 EON adaptation of Fleming’s novel, Topkapi revels in the local colour of its setting and the film provides an evocative snapshot of Istanbul in 1964. The extensive location filming for the exterior scenes is highly impressive for the time and helps ground the story. Incredibly, bar one tiny insert shot during a driving scene, there is no evidence of the rear projection so common in films from this era. It’s unclear whether Assistant Director Tom Pevsner had much influence, but the film shares the extremely high production values of the Bond movies he would work on from the early 1980s onwards.

The violence present in the novel was clearly toned down for the film. In passages unused by the filmmakers, the novel opens with Walter beating Arthur after he catches him trying to steal from his luggage. As with Richard Maibaum’s adaptations of Fleming’s novels, the screenwriters soften the characters to make them more likeable. However, several scenes share a Bond movie-style sexiness more overt than in the novel. In a scene filled with innuendo, Elizabeth, wearing a Tatiana Romanova-style necktie (here red), beckons Walter into bed while Arthur unwittingly eavesdrops on them from outside (above). Amusingly, throughout the film she is depicted freely kissing members of the team in front of a jealous Walter. Later, Elizabeth can be seen ogling a field of Turkish wrestlers while they oil themselves up ready for fighting. She also betrays an almost sexual desire for the dagger itself.


Whilst the world of James Bond is a clear influence on Topkapi, the film’s main legacy would be its influence on a rival spy series. Mission: Impossible, arriving on U.S TV in 1966 would combine the spy and heist genres to memorable effect. Several of the plot points from Topkapi even made it into early episodes, including a nasty accident with a door necessitating a change of plan (‘Pilot’) and the circus being used as cover for the heist (‘Old Man Out’). Of course, it’s impossible to watch the nail-biting acrobatic heist scene in Topkapi (above) and not think of Tom Cruise dangling on a wire a few decades later in the iconic scene in Mission Impossible (1996).

Sadly, this would be the only onscreen appearance for Arthur Simpson. Ambler’s follow up novel, Dirty Story (1967), involving Arthur with mercenaries in northern Africa, lacked the sparkle of his earlier caper and clearly didn’t interest Hollywood. However, almost 60 years since its release Topkapi remains a superb comedy heist thriller filled with wonderful characters, glorious local colour and several well-directed suspense sequences. For fans of James Bond, Topkapi offers the chance to enjoy one of the best adaptations of a novel by Eric Ambler, a huge and acknowledged influence on the work of Ian Fleming.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *