Darling Illya

Melina Mercouri is probably the sexiest thing to happen to Greece since Helen. There I said it. I first watched Mercouri in the delightful 1964 comic caper film Topkapi, a heist film in that delightfully offbeat early ’60s style. Directed by her husband and frequent collaborator Jules Dassin, the film starred Mercouri, Maximilian Schell and Peter Ustinov, who would win his second Oscar for this outing, as an unwilling, bumbling con man/patsy. Topkapi is based on Eric Ambler‘s novel The Light of Day and tells the unabashedly entertaining story of Elizabeth Lipp, an exotic jewel thief who enlists a former lover (Schell) to help her in an incredibly dangerous and seemingly impossible mission to steal the legendary emerald dagger from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. At first, I couldn’t really understand a thing that Mercouri was saying, as her Greek accent was incredibly thick, but I couldn’t get over the sensuality of the actress nor the coy way she had of flirting with the camera. (And I also found that after a few minutes, she was speaking English and I could understand it). I won’t go further in the plot of the film, but it’s one to be seen. It directly inspired Mission: Impossible and was even mentioned and homaged in the 1996 film adaptation of the classic TV series. (The scene where Tom Cruise hangs upside down; watch the original for the inspiration). It’s a product of the 1960s; that is for certain, but its charms and incredibly tense climax (the film was also a spoof of Dassin’s own Rififi, a dark and serious film about a heist that ends badly for all involved) make for a pleasant viewing.

Anyway, my fascination with Melina began with Topkapi. It continued when I watched what is considered her signature role, Illya (Ilia according to IMDb, Illia according to the DVD case…oh well) in Never on Sunday. The film centered on an American academic Homer Thrace (Dassin, who also directed) who becomes obsessed with reforming an incredibly popular and vivacious prostitute in the coastal town of Piraeus, just outside of Athens. Illya is unique because not only is she adored by the men in town, she also commands their respect, and she in return, loves them all platonically (and occasionally a little more). She has no pimp, she sets her own prices and only chooses men she likes for consorting. There is a Pygmalion-esque subtext underlying throughout the film, Homer is trying to recreate the Grecian ideal through Illya, though unbeknownst to her, he is financing her education through the local crime boss, who would much prefer to see Illya retired and not influencing his prostitutes to take their independence (as evidenced by an older prostitute played by Despo, who would also have a brief role in Topkapi). She heartily devours the Greek tragedies, always at dramatic festivals to see them and always retelling them to the men in town who adore her. However, her interpretations of said classics make them, how shall we say?, more upbeat. With all of them ending with a picnic by the sea shore. (One of the film’s funniest scenes is her revisionist Medea). The title stems from the fact that on Sunday, Illya takes the day off and has a party in which she invites all of her friends, mostly men, over to apartment. (Nothing of that sort happens). The film was a critical and popular sensation. Not only did the film make Mercouri a world-wide celebrity, it also managed one of the more impressive feats that I find from the film: it made her, at the film industry’s death knell age of 40, an international sex symbol. Her husky purr of a voice, combined with those devilishly enchanting eyes are enough to captivate even today. The film was nominated for five Academy awards, winning one for its incredibly popular bouzouki flavored song “Never on Sunday,” by Manos Hatzidakis. Melina was nominated, but she lost to Elizabeth Taylor’s tracheotomy.

Never on Sunday became a musical in 1967. Again, it starred our Melina. Again Despo played the older prostitute friend. Again it was directed by Dassin. Again the music was from Hatzidakis. The show was called Illya, Darling; an uninspired and rather poor choice, though one can appreciate the early film to stage adaptations trying to make themselves distinct from the original property, much like Carnival! from 1961 and with Promises, Promises a year after Illya opened. I have to admit, for such an incredibly weak score, it’s a guilty pleasure. The overture is a thrilling Grecian piece entitled “Bouzouki Nights” and may be the most thrilling opening to grace a dud of a score. Many of the character numbers lack sound structure and some lack lyrical finesse. (Particularly, Despo’s annoyingly catchy but truly awful “I Never Lay Down Anymore.” When the title of a song says all there is to be said, it shouldn’t be dragged out for another 2 1/2 minutes). It speaks volumes that “Never on Sunday” was interpolated into the score and it remains the strongest piece. But all of the above and Orson Bean‘s irritating nasal whine aren’t enough to make me stop the record. It has Melina. And God bless her, she really put her all into it. Her singing voice isn’t spectacular. It’s rather gravelly and deteriorated due to years of chain smoking (in the two films you rarely see her without and its a pity, Melina died of lung cancer in 1994). But there she is to lead the troupe through what must have been an interesting evening for 320 performances (given that she was basically the sole attraction, who else would want to fill those shoes?). The back of the LP is filled with love letters the critics wrote for her. My favorite being from Walter Kerr of the NY Times:

“Melina is, of course, something to contemplate. She’s a creature you would be happy to take home to Mother if Mother was out. Leggy and luscious as before, clasping a shy sailor to her very warm breast. Melina stripped down to a minibikini. Melina locked in the muscular embrace of a handsome dockworker without a shirt. Melina propped up in bed on her elbows, crying a little through cigarette smoke over three weeks love lost because of her over-indulgence in virtue. The lady’s smile is as broad as the blaze of noon. she moves as though she had been born a dancer.”

And they say Brantley worships Chenoweth. She’s got nothing on Melina.

On the BlueGobo website, there is an extended clip of Melina and the company. First, she performs her opening “Piraeus, My Love”, then men of the ensemble lead the title song and it ends with an encore of “Never on Sunday,” sung in Greek by Melina and assisted by the chorus.

I’m not entirely sure why I felt like writing about her tonight. Just seemed to be on the mind as I’ve been recommending her recently to friends. Now I only know her via these two roles, but I do intend on checking out Phaedra and Stella. I do hope you check out Melina in the two filmes I mentioned. They are incredibly enjoyable, especially to see a star as lustrous as Mercouri make proverbial love to the camera. (Illya Darling is also worth a listen for the curious).

There are plans to remake Topkapi. I wish they wouldn’t.