Looks can be awfully deceiving. Harold J. Smith
ís face has a rubbery, off-putting look from a long-running case of skin cancer. This noted, Smith never seems the least bit self-conscious about his looks and it hasnít hindered his progress in becoming one of the more prolific art theft detectives in the world.Rebecca Dreyfus
í documentary on the infamous 1990 heist of 13 irreplaceable artworks has a story to tell. Amongst the 13 artworks is Vermeerís ďThe Concert,Ē a priceless piece of art from a seminal artist who died young and only painted a little over 30 pieces. The heist, which took place at Bostonís Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, is one of the few art robberies in U.S. history where none of the pieces have been recovered. With vigor, Dreyfus and her guileful gumshoe give it another crack. Article continues below
As they trot from New York to Boston to London, it starts to become clear that there is plenty of fascination here, but not much else. Itís a hoot to watch Smith go head to head with a master criminal and to see him chum it up with a Scotland Yard agent and an ex-fence for stolen artwork, but these moments are bogged down by heady doses of overdone academia.
When talking about the history of the acquisition of the paintings and Isabella Stewart Gardnerís life while trying to start her museum, Dreyfus often withdraws into letters between Gardner (voiced by Blythe Danner
) and her art advisor, Bernard Berenson (voiced by Campbell Scott
) about several acquisitions. To be blunt, these digressions would be at home at a narcolepsy convention. For what reason we are actually learning about Gardner when we are given so little about Smith and the actual heist, one may never know.
Things get good when Smith gets a lead to a man who might know where the pieces are. Politics become more important than recovering the art when the suspect asks for immunity for any crimes that might stem from the knowledge he can give. Then, when Smith goes to London to investigate a lead, the possibility of reputed gangster Whitey Bulger being involved gives a level of intrigue to the film that has been muddled in monotonous, if not arguably integral interviews with art historians about the history of Vermeer and ďThe Concert.Ē Dreyfus, however, quickly strays away from Bulger and the Irish underground and goes into the history of the museum itself, which would be great in correlation with how the place was robbed and the architectural flaws, but that connection is never explored with much interest.
What will keep you watching is Smith and his conversations with gangsters and law officials, which adds up to half of a really good heist film. Smith passed away while they were putting the film together, and it succeeds at preserving his charming personality and his love for the hunt. Itís just too bad that the love of the hunt is never given over to the audience with equal ardor.