Part of me ought to be a little upset about Topkapi, the film version of Eric Ambler’s Light of Day. First of all, the ending is completely different. So different that I thought that it was a fantasy sequence before the “real” ending. Second of all, I don’t see what whitewashing Arthur Abdel Simpson into Arthur Simon Simpson really accomplishes, especially since Arthur’s statelessness as an Egyptian-English living on the edges of legality in Greece still haunts the film. And third of all, I can understand why you’d turn Simpson into a supporting role – he comes on, screws up, gets the laughs, and then exits so we can get back to the caper business that he’ll soon screw up – for a straight ahead caper picture, but why bother with a character as compelling as Arthur Abdel Simpson unless you’re going to do something a little different with the film as a whole? All those changes to a book that does so much interesting shit on its own seems to be the sure way to ruin what good there is in Light of Day.* But formally it’s not a straight ahead caper picture.

It’s hard not to love Peter Ustinov’s performance as Simpson. But I was well and truly won over by the film’s style: the lens flares in the title sequence, the overloaded post-title sequence at the fair, the intensely strange I-can-feel-the-acid-coming-on blotches of colour as Melina Mercouri narrates the opening, and Jules Dassin’s visualization of Simpson’s fear of heights, for example, all frame the film as something other than a simple caper. Which is not to say that Jules Rififi Dassin doesn’t deliver on that score. Topkapi doesn’t go for the self-aware smugness of a caper picture that doesn’t care about the caper. Instead, the visuals repeatedly remind us that there’s something excessive in the caper. Or, perhaps more to the point, The International Caper Big Heist Picture.

The film deploys maps to great effect – they are the province of the security services and the police. Whereas the novel’s endpapers feature a map of the Mediterranean, the first time we see a map in the film, Simpson is undergoing an interrogation shot on the edges of parody (with one interrogator up close, and another few across the room):

At the end of the interrogation, the sunglasses-inside intelligence chief points to the map with a gun in a comically menacing gesture which translates Ambler’s usual approach to police authority fairly well.

When the thieves are caught, once again, a map hovers in the background as testament to the ways in which the police and secret services control space, in spite of what the smugly unified thieves might think:

Finally, the travelogue-style shots of Istanbul feature a number of interesting shots of shanty settlements, which once again places Topkapi outside the 007-style tourist vision of exotic foreign locales. At no point does the film get into overt politics, but Jules Dassin (who has it over Ambler as a committed and active lefty), even in his second-unit establishing shots, places his film in something closer to a lived-in world, rather than the world of the International Location Shoot Picture.

*I have an article (that may some day get published, Karen Elizabeth Bishop I’m rooting for you) about stateless cartography in Light of Day and Dirty Story, Ambler’s Simpson novels. In the article, I see Simpson as a stateless person who sees the future. That is, the solution that Simpson finds to the problem of post-War statelessness is an ironic embrace of the multinational corporate model: establishing a fictional personhood wherever the greatest financial and regulatory advantages are at the moment, through incorpoation documents (passports, forged of course).

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