Given his notorious history of heists one might assume that Gerald Blanchard would stay out of sight. Or at least keep his mouth shut. Yet Blanchard’s narcissism, for it can be labeled as nothing else, will not allow him to stay mum about his life of crime. Thankfully, filmmaker Landon Van Soest gives Blanchard just enough rope to air out his dirty laundry for the whole world to enjoy in the new documentary “The Jewel Thief,” premiering this week on Hulu.
Van Soest had been trying for the better part of a decade to get the film made, he said recently on a video call from Los Angeles ahead of a screening (he lives in New York.) He was especially fascinated by the notorious 1998 Sisi Star heist, when Blanchard successfully filched from Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace a precious gemstone worn by Elisabeth of Bavaria in the 19th century.
“I started googling him and digging, and was just floored by the sheer amount, the sheer layers of complexities to this story,” Van Soest said. “His life of crime constantly built on itself. Every escape was wilder and savvier and more complex than the last.”
When Van Soest finally got the funding and crew in place, he had Blanchard sit for on-camera interviews in an old-world gathering space in Los Angeles, where the master crook detailed his absurdly fascinating career of theft for the cameras while dimly lit. “The Jewel Thief” interrupts Blanchard’s interviews with animated segments explaining his zany crimes, as well as interviews with some of the authorities who tried for years to halt his reign of economic terror.
“When you think about a criminal, and clearly someone who is as sophisticated as he was, they [typically] would have [been] sworn to secrecy, but he’s an open book,” Van Soest said of his subject. “He’s very eager to tell the story, he enjoys telling the story, and ultimately that was where I landed in the whole process.”
Van Soest says the film couldn’t have happened had he not become friendly with both Blanchard and his mother, who appears in the film often shaking her head when recollecting her son’s misdeeds. And since “bad” attention is often better than none at all, the director believes that Blanchard almost couldn’t help but want to brag about his own exploits—even if perhaps the statute of limitations on some of his crimes might not have yet run their course. However, giving Blanchard the opportunity to boast about his adventures might likely have been the hook, the filmmaker believes.
“A lot of the escapades and things he did may have started with some reaction to financial need or impressing friends, but I think he so quickly outpaced that and kind of graduated to these levels where he was just doing these impossible feats,” Van Soest said. “I think what a lot of the film is about is this quest for greatness and the desire for that to be recognized. [Blanchard] wanted that certain degree of notoriety.”
Those likely not out for such notoriety were the cops hot on his tail. “The Jewel Thief” includes new interviews with such figures as Mitch McCormick, a Winnipeg policeman who seemingly just missed Blanchard again and again—almost Pink Panther-like. However, Van Soest believes that Blanchard’s elusiveness essentially led to a grudging admiration from law enforcement.
“I think when you’re a police officer and 98% of the people you are dealing with are just complete idiots…when something comes across your desk that has this much complexity and so many layers, they obviously ate that up,” said Van Soest. “They were as obsessed with catching him as he was obsessed with doing crime and getting away with it. They almost couldn’t exist without one another.
“When telling a nonfiction story, you so rarely get that kind of direct opposition, that kind of relationship [that] made me salivate as a filmmaker.”
In addition to documentaries, Van Soest has also worked on PR, commercials and promotional videos, which he says pays the bills, thus allowing him to pursue passion projects such as “The Jewel Thief.” Making documentaries is as difficult as it has ever been, particularly in terms of funding, but thanks to the bevy of streamers all vying for eyeballs, he believes this paradoxically can be a boon to filmmakers with great stories to share.
Blanchard has indeed seen the film, and its director says his subject was “pretty happy with it” in the end. When asked if giving Blanchard a platform to brag about his life of crime might encourage him—or others—Van Soest says that although those are valid concerns, it doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s got quite a story on his hands worth sharing with the world—especially when it comes to the sexiness of the successfully-executed heist.
“But if you’re dabbling in true crime, there’s not a dark grizzly murder at the center of this,” the director said in defense of his work. “Nobody was ever hurt physically in any of his crimes. And I felt like that gave some degree of license to have fun with this story [and] to allow a few laugh lines and things that could be treated lightly.
“But it’s certainly not lost on me that he’s a lifelong criminal, that he has very antisocial behaviors and he clearly has a real dark streak in him,” Van Soest added. “I hope there’s enough in the film to acknowledge that, and that people who see it won’t walk away with any glorification of him. I hope we can kind of collectively prevent future Blanchards.”
More than anything, “The Jewel Thief” offers audiences a chance to behold at least part of the process that results in self-mythologizing. For a legend to endure, it must not only be espoused by the source but picked up and amplified by others—be it the police, Blanchard’s accomplices or, in a strange way, even us, the viewers.
“It’s a gift for me to be able to make a film like this [and] frankly it’s just fun,” said Von Soest. “It’s a great story, I think it’s wildly entertaining, there’s a lot that you can sort of ponder [after seeing] it. It’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
“I’m a movie lover; I love heist movies. And to be able to do that in documentary form just seems so rare.”
“The Jewel Thief” is available on Hulu as of Thursday