Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

29 October

Star of India stolen, 1964

On this day in 1964, the famous Star of India gemstone was stolen from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Though not the biggest gem in the world, this blue-green 563.35 carat (112.67g) golfball-sized sapphire is one of the most famous, thanks in large part to its distinctive markings – a star on either side of the stone. The robbery was simplicity itself. During the day the thieves unlocked a bathroom window and used it to climb back into the museum later at night – the burglar alarm system wasn’t working at the time. They found that the Star of India’s case was alarmed, but the battery for the alarm was dead. The cases of the various other gemstones on display weren’t alarmed (they included the Midnight Star, the Delong Star Ruby and the Eagle Diamond). Dubbed the “jewel heist of the century”, it was pulled off by cat burglar Jack Murphy, aka Murf the Surf, who was high on the police list of suspects. Two days after the heist, Murphy was arrested along with his accomplices. The Star of India was eventually recovered from a locker at Miami bus station, as were all the gems apart from the Eagle Diamond (16.25ct/3.25g) which has never been seen since.

Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers (2013, dir: Havana Marking)

The three things a documentary needs is a story to tell, access to the people who can tell it, and a guiding intelligence knowing what questions to ask, when to charm and when to bully and how to put all the material together. Havana Marking’s documentary about the world’s most successful jewel thieves has the lot. Most remarkable of all is the access she has to the actual gang members – one a voice down a telephone line, another two rotoscoped to prevent identification. But they are there, and it is a great story – how since the turn of the millennium this gang nicknamed the Pink Panthers have pulled off about 500 robberies and bagged about $300 million of booty. “We started with houses and car but we found jewels are smaller and get you more money. Wherever there’s rich stuff, we can be there…” says Novak, their leader. The film cuts between the thieves telling their story of how they do it – some are simple stick-ups, others are ramraids. One robbery they’re clearly all rather proud of was an immensely elaborate set-up using an attractive woman as a plant – “She has to be very good looking, intelligent, and she has to love money,” says one of the guys. We also meet the cops on their tail. Particularly amusing is Chief Inspector Yan Glassey in Geneva, who has a Pink Panther toy hanging on a noose in the corner of his office and an exasperated expression hanging off his face. Then Marking treats us to the backstory which, if not quite as compelling as ramraids into high-end Dubai shopping malls, is a fascinating reminder of a brief bloody war in Europe and how the exit of Yugoslavia’s President Tito from the planet led to the breakup of the country and opportunities for smugglers, which is how Novak got into the game. What’s most remarkable in Smash and Grab is how much everything conforms to Ocean’s 11 stereotype – the ocean-view lifestyle, the women with Julia Roberts sass getting inside info, the cops running one step behind, the ringleader now paranoid that all that ill-gotten loot has made him a marked man. Money doesn’t make you happy, eh?

Why Watch?

  • Quite simply, a great story well told
  • Great CCTV footage of robberies conducted at breakneck speed
  • A reminder that political turmoil in one country can have far reaching ramifications
  • Is the Pink Panther era over? That’s the question it finishes on

Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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