It seems a bit of a shame that director Jules Dassin was born too late for silent movies. His classic 1956 French heist film, Rififi--made after the Hollywood blacklist forced Dassin overseas--features one of the most nail-biting sequences in film history, a dialogue-free half-hour fondly remembered by anyone fortunate enough to have seen the film's reissue last year. (For those who weren't, Rififi was recently been released on video).

After making Rififi in France, Dassin met and married Greek actress Melina Mercouri, and returned to Hollywood's good graces with the racy comedy Never on Sunday. In 1964, Dassin returned to the genre of the caper film with Topkapi, a brightly colored, highly entertaining confection that hits Cinema 21 this weekend in a sparkling, brand-new print. In this moribund movie season (Driven, anyone? Or perhaps Crocodile Dundee in L.A.?) it's the best shot you'll have for plain old big-screen fun.

Dassin's facility for drawing tension out of wordless action in his movies may have resulted from his intercontinental travels--judicious editing and well-chosen close-ups work in any language. In Topkapi, this talent results in a sequence at a Turkish wrestling exhibition, with a soundtrack solely composed of the crowd's cheers that's as riveting as anything in Rififi. In fact, Topkapi might be Dassin's best film; it's certainly almost the flip side of the brooding, black-and-white, noir feel of Rififi (despite their similarities). This time, instead of down-and-out Parisians plotting a job, it's decadent, sex-addicted Elizabeth Lipp (Mercouri) who hires the suave Swiss Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) to organize and execute the daring heist of an emerald-encrusted dagger from a well-guarded Istanbul museum. Harper recruits a team of amateurs, including bumbling Brit Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov, who won an Oscar for this role).

Complications, naturally, ensue. The clueless Simpson gets nabbed by the Turkish authorities, who suspect the gang of being terrorists and turns informer. The weaponry they'd planned on using gets taken out of play, requiring some hasty replanning. And there's the drunken, foul-mouthed cook (the deliciously hammy Akim Tamiroff) at their luxurious Turkish villa to contend with as well. Such predicaments!

Topkapi comes from that glorious school of criminal thought that it's just as important to look good during the commission of one's unlawful acts as to get away with them. Mercouri and Schell, especially, make an exceedingly handsome pair, always immaculately coiffed and dressed to the nines. The retro-chic look of the Turkish cops, all heavy sunglasses and Nehru-style outfits, exemplifies the Eurochic, mid-'60s appeal of the film.

The witty banter and extravagant style of our antiheroes carries Topkapi through its first half, but once the attempted theft begins, things really get good. After cleverly eluding their surveillers at the aforementioned wrestling meet, the crew embarks on a masterfully staged daytime crawl along the museum's minaret-laden roof. Getting to the item in question itself involves dangling a "human fly" from the ceiling to avoid the treasure room's hyper-sensitive floor, a scene which obviously inspired Tom Cruise's similar feat in Mission: Impossible.

Throughout the entire escapade, there's none of the anguished hand-wringing over the fickle workings of fate, and no melancholy cuts to the impoverished wife-and-kid waiting in the tenement apartment for the return of the honest-but-desperate-and-therefore-doomed member of the gang. This isn't that kind of caper. Rarely, if ever, has the criminal life been depicted as such a tremendously fun, only occasionally challenging line of work.

A cast that's in on the joke completely, a director who can dish out mute tension like it's last week's meatloaf, an exotic locale (the movie was filmed in Istanbul), and the manmade palette of Technicolor--the combination makes Topkapi first-rate fun. Often imitated, rarely equaled, to miss this movie would be (gulp) a crime.