"Lela," one of the Pink Panthers, an international ring of jewel thieves (Doppelgänger Releasing)

“Lela,” one of the Pink Panthers, an international ring of jewel thieves (Doppelgänger Releasing)

Directed by Havana Marking
Produced by Mike Lerner
Released by Doppelgänger Releasing
UK. 90 min. Not rated

Wow. Talk about free publicity. The July 28th robbery of an estimated $137 million worth of jewelry on the French Riviera (at the Carlton International hotel, coincidentally a location in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief) occurred just days before the U.S. premiere of the in-the-know documentary Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers. The British-produced exposé reveals the secrets of the gang that is suspected of this recent robbery and two more that occurred during this year’s Cannes Film Festival. According to the film, this 200-member Balkan-based organization, tagged by the British press with the innocuous name the “Pink Panthers” (a nod to the Blake Edwards film), is responsible for hundreds of robberies, netting roughly $300 million.

The film will more than scratch an itch for heist film fans waiting for the next Topkapi, Rififi, or The Thomas Crown Affair. The Pinks’ plans, as relayed here, are breathtakingly simple, nothing as high tech as in the reboot of Ocean’s Eleven, yet still ready-made material for a movie, fiction or nonfiction. Among the tell-all interviews is the requisite femme fatale. Her participation makes believable the movies of the 1930s featuring an international jewel thief played by either Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, and, of course, Marlene Dietrich.

“Lela” has now gone straight, and she comes clean about how she would seduce men, scope out the scene and relay back to the gang a store’s layout, the location of cameras and jewelry, etc. Success depended on women like to her blend in. Like all of the thieves divulging secrets here, she appears through rotoscope animation, and some of the voice-overs are spoken by actors.  The surveillance footage, though, is the real deal.

Towards the middle, the film shifts from a romp to an absorbing, though brief, history of the former Yugoslavia. We go quickly from the so-called “Golden Age,” the era of the authoritarian rule of Josip Broz Tito, to the ethnic wars after the country splintered apart. Director Havana Marking (which kind of sounds like a code name in itself) connects the dots from today’s crimes to the 1990s, when outcast republics Serbia and Montenegro were on its knees due to hard-hitting international sanctions. The black market and crime flourished as a result. (One eyebrow-raising revelation is mentioned and then dropped: Croatia allowed career criminals to leave the country, thus allowing them to commit crimes throughout Europe.)

After viewing a few of the audacious crimes caught on camera, it’s hard to buy the assertion that no one has been killed or injured during the Pinks’ crime spree, especially when it’s also mentioned that loot from the stolen jewelry has been reinvested in other illegal operations, among them human trafficking and drugs. The ramifications of the group’s operations are surely not free of violence, which takes away some of the vicarious buzz from the old-school devious derring-do. Otherwise, the film is a probing guilty pleasure.