Some obsessions are noble, others merely eccentric. The latter certainly seems to be the case when it comes to the central figure in The Queen’s Man, which recently received its world premiere at DOC NYC. The title of Daniel Claridge and Andrew Coffman’s documentary refers to Steve Talt, an unprepossessing septuagenarian living in upstate New York who has devoted years of his life to solving the mystery of a supposed heist of artworks belonging to Farah Pahlavi, the exiled former queen of Iran. Talt’s dogged quest, fueled by his undying loyalty to Pahlavi, for whom he worked for several as a bodyguard, forms the heart of the film, which definitely falls into the stranger-than-fiction category.
Talt happened to be a friend and neighbor of co-director Claridge, who became fascinated by his tales of attempting to find out what happened to 32 valuable paintings which were apparently stolen in a 1980 Mafia heist of a Manhattan warehouse. Talt, who repeatedly refers to the queen as “my good friend,” asserts that he’s operating on her behalf and with her blessing. The truth, as the doc eventually reveals, proves far more complicated.
At first, the film seems a conventional true-crime documentary, following Talt as he meets up with former undercover FBI agents who were embedded with the suspected criminals at the time the heist was perpetrated. Now retired, they turn out to be a colorful lot, including Thomas McShane, who served as the inspiration for Bradley Cooper’s character in American Hustle; Edgar Robb, who participated in the undercover operation depicted in Donnie Brasco; and Stephen Salmieri, who joined the Bonanno crime family under the alias “Chico Navarro.” As the now elderly agents recount their past exploits, we see clips of the Hollywood dramatizations of their cases. They all treat Talt with tolerance and no small amount of bemusement. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone this persistent. You’re a bulldog!” Robb tells him, in a manner that doesn’t feel entirely complimentary.
The real-life story even has its own MacGuffin, in the form of the supposed “32 Polaroids” taken by the criminals documenting their stolen artworks that Talt is intent on finding. He repeats the phrase so often in the course of the doc that it comes to feel like his personal mantra.
Ultimately, The Queen’s Man isn’t really about the unsolved crime, nor Talt’s attempts to solve it. Rather, it explores the nature of his obsession, the quixotic nature of which becomes increasingly clear as it becomes evident that he’s not working on behalf of the queen at all. When he tracks down one of her employees at his home, Talt is told in no uncertain terms, ‘She’s pissed off, Steve.” At one point, the filmmakers contact the queen’s office themselves, only to be told by her private secretary that she never asked Steve to investigate the matter. When they subsequently relate the details of the conversation to Talt, he becomes angrily defensive.
The film actually becomes more interesting as Talt is increasingly confronted with the possibility that he’s been deluding himself. “You need something to motivate you,” he insists, his life seemingly devoid of close relationships or anything else truly meaningful. He does have one close friend, the 90-year-old Frank, who patiently listens to Talt’s endless stories about his detective work. When Frank suffers a stroke, Talt seems genuinely upset, although his apparently endless capacity for self-delusion becomes further evident when he comments, “I think Frank lived for this case.”
As if to help us understand Talt’s fixation, The Queen’s Man frequently includes decades-old archival footage of the queen in her all youthful, elegant beauty. It makes it at least a little bit easier to accept his desire to take her words “Thank you, Steve,” written at the bottom of a short note to him years earlier, as deep appreciation rather than simple politeness.
Production company: Abstract
Directors-directors of photography-editors: Daniel Claridge, Andrew Coffman
Producers: Andrew Rossi, Daniel Claridge, Andrew Coffman
Composer: Michael Coffman
Venue: DOC NYC