It is rare that one can become completely enamored with a documentary film, but director Allison Otto‘s “The Thief Collector” grabbed be from the opening frame. This true story of a museum heist in the mid-1980s features an interesting topic filled with twists and turns, exceptional storytelling, and is a wildly entertaining film that will especially appeal to art lovers.
The day after Thanksgiving in 1985, a couple wearing simple disguises walked into the University of Arizona’s art museum. The wife distracted a museum guard while her husband literally cut one of the most valuable paintings of the 20th century, Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre,” from its frame. The pair ran out into the desert, leaving behind no fingerprints.
The criminals turned out to be New Mexico teachers Rita and Jerry Alter, who hung the painting behind the door of their bedroom for decades. The couple lived in a modest house in the small town of Cliff, but neighbors were always a bit suspicious of their outlandish trips around the world (some even speculate that they were financing these luxury excursions by selling stolen goods on the international black market). It was only after Rita’s death in 2017 that the missing painting was discovered by an antique shop that purchased their estate for just $2,000.
It’s a fantastic story that gets even stranger from there. Since much of the joy is in discovering the (downright bonkers) surprises that are revealed, I’ll keep this review spoiler-free. I will say that Jerry and Rita were indeed criminal masterminds, if certain parts of their story are to be believed. They also weren’t exactly the most upstanding citizens either, living their lives in a murky area where the lines of fantasy and reality were blurred.
The film features talking head interviews from family members, art historians, neighbors, and members of the FBI’s art crime team. The Alter’s story is told through old photos, police reports, and Jerry’s own “book of exotic tales.” Otto makes it fun by interjecting amusing, tongue-in-cheek reenactments that complement the mind bending story.
The documentary is never dry or boring, and the structure is masterful. Taking a clever approach that gets audiences to care about who stole the painting and why, the outcome of the crime is revealed first, which fosters a natural curiosity about Jerry and Rita’s background. There are several jaw-dropping revelations that are unveiled with perfect timing as Otto peels away the layers of the story. You couldn’t ask for a better understanding of documentary film directing.
The story goes places you’d never expect, and “The Thief Collector” raises some interesting discussion topics about the nature of collectors and the dark lives the Alters may have led. It’s one of the more compelling topics for a documentary film, and it’s one enthralling ride from start to finish.