Smash and Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers: Film Review

Using real-life surveillance footage and interviews with several of the gang's members themselves, this eerily timely true-crime documentary fascinates.

Havana Marking's documentary recounts the nefarious exploits of the world's most successful jewel thieves.

With all the canny timing of a master criminal, Havana Marking’s documentary about the notorious jewel thieves the Pink Panthers is receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere just days after one of its members escaped from a Swiss prison and became a principal suspect in the robbery of $50 million dollars’ worth of jewelry. The loot was taken at the same French Riviera hotel where Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief was set.

You can’t make this stuff up.

But Smash and Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers would be fascinating even if it wasn’t so timely. It grippingly recounts the story behind this group of diamond thieves--many of them stemming from the former Yugoslavia--who have stolen diamonds worth an estimated quarter-billion dollars over the last decade in such cities as Geneva, Paris, London, Dubai and Tokyo.

The filmmaker’s coup was in securing interviews with two actual gang members, the transcripts of which serve as the basis for segments in which they’re portrayed by animated figures using actors’ voices. Also interviewed are a gang courier and fence, as well as various law enforcement officials.

There is riveting if grainy surveillance footage from some of the gang’s more dramatic heists, including one in a Dubai shopping mall in which they crash their cars into the windows of a high-end jewelry store.

“They were definitely not Arabs,” says the Dubai police chief about the mysterious perpetrators. “This was too well organized.”

The two Panther members interviewed, “Mike” (Tomislav Benzon) and “Lela” (Jasmin Topalusic), describe the gang’s activities in great deal and touches of dry humor. The latter, for instance, describes how she was enlisted to case a jewelry store in Spain, using her allure to dazzle a male employee.

“I didn’t go to seduce him, but my very appearance contributed to his joy,” she comments.

Providing the distaff side of the story are such figures as Chief Inspector Yan Glassey of the Swiss Central Brigade, who’s long pursued the gang. He’s interviewed in his office, where a large, stuffed Pink Panther toy is seen dangling from a noose.

The highly successful gang is not above the occasional misstep, as evidenced by a segment in which a forensics expert describes how she was able to uncover damning evidence from a car that had been left burning after the thieves made the mistake of leaving its windows shut.

The film adds sociological perspective to the tale with a recounting of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, which resulted in ethnic disputes and a general atmosphere of lawlessness.

“If you take all their crimes together, they are the best thieves in the world,” asserts the Swiss detective. And although Interpol forces have been closing in on them, their recent brazen robbery demonstrates that the Pink Panthers’ reign of terror is far from over.

Opens: July 31 (Goldcrest Films)

Production: Roast Beef Productions, BBC Storyville, Sabotage Films, Thought Engine, Gucci Tribeca

Distribution company: Doppelganger Releasing

Cast: Jasmin Topalusic, Tomislav Benzon, Daniel Vivian, Rob Kennedy

Director: Havana Marking

Producer: Mike Lerner

Executive producer: Martin herring

Editor: Joby Gee

Director of photography: Richard Gillespie

Animation director: Tony Comley

Composer: Simon Russell

Not rated, 90 min.