Revisiting the sounds of ‘Topkapi’

It was at the end of the 1950s that Manos Hadjidakis was inspired to write the music for «Star of the East.» In his mind, he had the picture of an ordinary girl, «insignificant,» as he described her, who would be transformed into a star. When he finally wrote the piece, he was thinking in terms of a ballet. Things changed, however. The girl in question was a star in her own right. Melina Mercouri heard «Star of the East» six years after the music was first written. She was impressed and, with her usual impulsiveness, pleaded with Hadjidakis to write the music for «Topkapi,» a film being made by Jules Dassin at the time, co-starring Mercouri, Peter Ustinov and Maximilian Schell. The result was fantastic and has stood the test of time, even if its creators considered it lighthearted. A woman who adores diamonds forms a gang in order to steal a priceless knife decorated with emeralds from the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. This adventure-filled comedy was filmed in Kavala, Istanbul and Paris. The leading Greek composer’s melodies, also high-spirited, vital and full of feeling, were greeted enthusiastically as soon as they came out. The composition «Star of the East» became the theme tune for «Topkapi.» Many years later, around 1991 and with lyrics by Akis Daskalopoulos, it was turned into the «Magiko Hali» (Magic Carpet), to the voice of Flery Dantonaki. In America Yet the soundtrack to «Topkapi» was never released in Greece. It was released in America in 1964 and reissued three times in that year. It has become a vinyl collector’s item for anyone lucky enough to get hold of it abroad. Its absence here is now being filled by the Seirios record label, established by Hadjidakis, which will release the material for the first time in this country. The CD, which will shortly be in circulation, includes the 13 tracks of «Topkapi» and a text written by the composer himself in 1983 as well as anecdotes by Jules Dassin from a conversation with Giorgos Tsampras. The CD will be in Greek and English, like that of the soundtrack to «Blue» – Silvio Marizzano’s western starring Terence Stamp, Karl Malden and Ricardo Montalban – which will also be released by Seirios. These two releases coincide with that of a third soundtrack, «America, America,» this time by Warner. «When I wrote ‘Topkapi,’ I knew that I was satirizing my other film ‘Rififi’ in a way. It was a game, a joke… It was fun and work at the same time, so we could make a bit of money. And Manos knew very well what it was,» Jules Dassin recalls. «We had a lot of laughs. Manos and I would always agree on certain things before we started filming, but he often needed to find out what he wanted by working with the musicians in the studio. «He was amazingly good at this. I remember once I asked him for something for a scene by tapping the rhythm with my finger and, one hour later, he brought me a very nice piece of music that the orchestra had already played. That’s what Manos was like… Initially, we were going to have this song as the film’s theme tune. I never finished the lyrics though (they were in English) because I couldn’t find the right point where the song would go. In the end, the film started with a few bars from it and only now, from you, do I learn that many years later Manos put lyrics to it and recorded it as a song with Flery Dantonaki. We all saw the film as a game. I never believed that it was something significant. «The truth is that even today I don’t understand how it was so successful. My friends tell me that I’m being unfair. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s because the period during which we filmed was such – Melina was ill – that we had to look at things lightheartedly, to laugh when working. But I know that where there is music in ‘Topkapi,’ it works, it helps the film.» To the sounds of NATO Peter Ustinov, who was awarded the Oscar for best supporting role for his part in the film, recalls: «In one scene, I had to stand behind a hill waiting for the cue to come out and go toward the Turkish customs office, which they had set up within Greece.» In his comments to Freida Buby for her book «Melina,» he continued: «All the time I was waiting to come out I could hear, on the walkie-talkie that they had given me so I could talk with the director, these voices giving commands for the NATO exercises that were taking place at that moment. Parachutes were falling and there were commands being given in Greek, Turkish and American. «There was great confusion and I took steps to add to it. I said into the machine: ‘This is the First Bulgarian Division.’ Turkish soldiers soon arrived in a jeep. They had located me. They asked for an explanation, I gave one and the matter was resolved. But they kept looking at the guardhouses which had been set up for the purposes of the film. ‘When you finish with the film,’ they said to Jules, ‘give the reels to us. We don’t have enough and need them.’ «The lead actress was having problems during filming and was trying to recover from tuberculosis. Although everyone tried to make it fun for her, Melina Mercouri did not enjoy it as much as everyone else. The Turks, however, thought she was wonderful. «They adored her because she had honored them by going there. Indeed, in return they allowed her to be photographed with the rare jewels of the Topkapi Museum!» A passage by Manos Hadjidakis «I thought of a ballet, around 1957, which starred a girl, insignificant yet tender, eking out a wretched reality in one of the city districts, yet who in the evening at a coastal taverna in Faliron would be transformed into the Star of the East. Dancing a dance, let’s say a Middle Eastern one, in an artless, unsophisticated manner, she would excite, she would inspire ecstasy and panic among the repressed local patrons of the taverna. And the moon from high above would laugh ironically at the poor and flimsy East as they portrayed her down there, ‘down in Faliron, down in Drapetsona.’ Melina heard the tune around 1963, when she was filming ‘Topkapi’ with Dassin. And she wanted it to become the theme tune with all her heart and soul. Even back then, you could see the character and particular traits of a minister of culture. She would ask for and grab all the monuments which caught her eye… or her ear. For example, the Elgin Marbles, the Star of the East and much more.»

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