Home Video Hovel: Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers, by Aaron Pinkston
As can be seen in my recent series on crime films, society has always had a complicated relationship with organized crime. Mob bosses like Al Capone have become as culturally recognizable around the world as movie stars or presidents. Cinematic creations like Tony Montana or Don Corleone are among the most popular and important film characters. It’s a surprise, then, that I’d never heard of the Pink Panthers, even despite their snappy film-related moniker. The European network of over 200 members have stolen more than 500 million dollars worth of diamonds and jewelry throughout many European and Asian countries since the early 1990s. Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers glances over the criminal organization, using a number of voices and film styles. It may not end up being the definitive story of the Pink Panthers, but it is a moderately fun introduction.
Smash & Grab mixes real security footage, shown without a lot of obvious manipulation, with very artificially staged interviews with current Panthers — because no criminal is going to show their face on camera, the talking heads are replaced by actors who are animated in a pseudo-rotoscoped style for effect. The results of this are intriguing, though not wholly satisfying. Filmmaker Havana Marking specifically decided to film her remarkable interviews in this way, as opposed to just a voice-over (one of the three Panthers interviewed in the film is only heard, while the two major interviews are shown), and I can see why in theory. Still, the very performed monologues inevitably feel staged, creating a fairly distracting disconnect between the information we are given and how we are given that information. Even without the film’s opening disclaimer, letting the viewer in on the presentation, the actors’ hand is easily seen. Films have taken this kind of documentary vs. performance presentation and made fascinating results (The Arbor is the first film that comes to mind), but Smash & Grab doesn’t take the form in any particularly interesting direction.
The film has charms outside of the simple profile of a group of criminals, most surprisingly as a brief but adept view of the politically turbulent time at the end of Yugoslavia. Many key members of the Pink Panther organization have come right out of this era, painted as the only time that could birth this type of organization. Most successful people were making money in a newly widespread black market rather than legitimate jobs. One of the interviewed members remembers the time as a constant fight for survival that trained him to do anything necessary to make a buck.
Our cultural perception of jewel thieves is much different from more violent or common criminals, and Smash & Grab smartly understands that. Most films that follow large-scale heists, the criminals are the focus, idealized and worshipped. Compared to your average street thug, diamond thieves are sophisticated, cultured, the type of people a middle-class American could conceivably aspire to be. Also: who are the Pink Panthers hurting? Diamonds are nothing more than a symbol of wealth; by stealing diamonds, the Panthers aren’t taking food away from the hungry, stealing from hard-working folks. Many of the film’s non-Panther talking heads, including journalists and law enforcement, seem to struggle with this idea. One of the interviewed detectives needs to take a step back to remember that these criminals aren’t Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, heist heroes in fictional films — figures he has posters commemorating in his own office. Obviously, what the Pink Panthers are doing is morally wrong, and they should be stopped — those on their tail also realize that they aren’t doing this to be Robin Hood figures, but for their own personal gain.
The most cinematic and exhilarating part of their crimes (and, as a product, the most cinematic part of the documentary) is the raw footage we get during the heist. We are told, though, that everything afterward is more dangerous for the thieves – ie, it’s not too difficult to steal a bunch of diamonds, but it’s pretty tough to get away with it. The film’s title reflects on the act of the crimes, and Smash & Grab is a pretty accurate account from the footage we see. It is also strangely reductive in the incredibly complex scope of the entire crime from start to finish. The film’s final third spends most of its time in this less cinematic but still compelling ground. As police have become more savvy, forensic technology smarter and countries less willing to offer safe haven to fugitives, the Pink Panthers are destined to become extinct. Many members have been caught, others have left criminal life for a clean one. Though the film doesn’t have the benefit of a natural conclusion that many crime docs are awarded, it clearly sees the end of the Pink Panthers.