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Stolen (2006)
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by Jay Seaver

"Would have been a great documentary with a resolution."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: Someday, a great movie will be made about the Gardner Museum robbery. There's just too many classic elements and characters for it not to happen; the story would include a daring heist of well-known paintings, a scarred and obsessed detective, connections to fugitive Boston mob boss (and FBI informant) Whitey Bulger and the Irish Republican Army, a five million dollar reward, a newspaper reporter given a tantalizing glimpse, a former crook with conspiracy theories, and more. There's only one thing that great movie would need missing: An ending.

At approximately 1:20am on 18 March 1990, two men dressed as Boston Police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, overpowered the guards on duty, and made off with a dozen pieces, including five by Degas, three by Rembrandt, one by Manet, and one Vermeer ("The Concert", currently considered among the most valuable stolen pieces of art in the world). Suspicion fell upon notorious (and imprisoned) New England art thief Myles Connor as the mastermind, but he denied involvement. The two men he suggested were involved, Bobby Donati and David Houghton, would be dead within two years. In 1997, another associate of Connor's, William Youngworth, contacted Boston Herald reporter Tom Mashberg and took him on a drive to see what appeared to be one of the Rembrandts, giving him some paint chips to analyze. Youngworth claims the paintings could be returned "in thirty minutes" if he was given amnesty.

We meet Youngworth, Connor, and Mashberg in this documentary from Rebecca Dreyfus and Sharon Guskin. We also meet Harold Smith. Smith, who recently passed away at the age of 75, is a spry, energetic man who worked for years as a private investigator specializing in art and antiques, and up until just a week before his death still followed leads on the Gardner robbery from his firm's offices in New York. He was handsome as a young man, but has suffered from skin cancer his entire adult life; his right hand and the right side of his face is heavily scarred, he wears an eyepatch, and his nose appears to be prosthetic. Despite his off-putting appearance, he is charismatic and serves as a pleasant guide as he and the filmmakers try to track down the stolen art. Their investigations take the audience from Boston to New York to London, where they meet Charles Hill, a former investigator for Scotland Yard and "Turbocharger", a former art thief turned informant. "Turbo" is as boisterous as Smith and Hill are calm and taciturn, spinning a wild tale of how Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy could prevail upon the IRA to retrieve the artwork from "Whitey" Bulger. Impractical, to say the least, but entertaining, and there's precedent for the IRA's involvement. The procedural parts of the film, along with those that describe the methods of investigating art theft, are intriguing, though the lack of a resolution is somewhat unsatisfying.

Also interesting is the history of the Gardner museum itself. Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) was one of nineteenth century America's most prominent collectors; she is described as having a striking figure but a forgettable face. Her only child died as a toddler, so the museum is her legacy; it is not only filled with her collection but built to her specifications. Indeed, her will stipulates that the displays cannot be changed, so there are empty frames where the stolen artwork once hung. We learn about how she amassed her collection from a series of letters between her (read by Blythe Danner) and her European buyer Bernard Berenson (Campbell Scott), which offers the suggestion that many had to be smuggled into the country.

Rather less successful are the segments on the most valuable of the stolen paintings, Vermeer's "The Concert". Dreyfus and Guskin for the most part eschew professional art historians and theorists, instead focusing on art-lovers in other fields, and it's not their best decision. Some of these scenes feel rather irrelevant (what's the point of having the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring talk about that painting rather than "The Concert"?); some are kind of absurd, as their weeping subjects appear to take the painting's theft more personally than perhaps seems warranted, or just sound like boring art snobs talking above their actual level of expertise.

These scenes aren't total losses; they do contain nuggets that communicate how stealing art and keeping it so only a select few can see it or, worse, as some sort of bargaining chip is a thoroughly crappy thing to do. Stealing art is the sort of thing that shows up in caper movies and seems kind of harmless or even romantic - after all, it shows that the crooks have some sense of refinement, and they aren't killing anyone - but is, in reality, just petty and mean.

The movie's greatest weakness is that the case remains unsolved, and as such, this is a move that doesn't end so much as it stops. In a way, the movie was sort of a Hail Mary pass - they were working with Harold Smith, and if they'd been able to be present at the recovery of the art, then they would have had an exceptional movie, with a great finish. The recovery rate on stolen masterpieces is not encouraging, though, and the filmmakers' apparent "Plan B" of focusing on the history of the museum isn't quite so compelling.

Hopefully, soon, the artwork will be recovered and returned to the Gardner museum. When that time comes, maybe Dreyfus & Guskin can revisit their film to make it a more complete narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, even if Howard Smith won't be on hand.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=11953&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/26/05 06:45:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Independent Film Festival of Boston. For more in the 2005 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.

User Comments

9/19/05 AG Professional work, but flatter than the stolen canvas of the paintings and with no depth. 3 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  21-Apr-2006 (NR)
  DVD: 14-Nov-2006

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