Back in the 1980s, I lived in a small town in New Hampshire and one of my favorite things to do was to go down to Boston for either a Red Sox game or to go visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The Gardner Museum was founded in 1909 by a wealthy, beautiful, eccentric woman, Isabella Stewart Gardner, who built a replica of a Venetian palazzo along the Fenway. Just to be clear, the Fenway is not just a baseball park; it’s a fen, which is a fancy word for a swamp. So, to be especially clear, this was an odd project right from the start. Mrs. Gardner was a tremendous art collector and she filled the museum with her personal collection. In terms of art, it’s a wonderful museum, but it is unusual. First of all, the lighting is terrible, so you will do a lot of squinting. But it’s worth it. It’s like wandering around someone’s musty old house and looking at amazing paintings. Definitely worth a visit the next time you are in Boston.
One winter night in 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers banged on the back door to the museum and were let in by a night guard. He was promptly bonked on the head, tied up, and the two thieves went through the museum stealing 13 paintings. And in the crudest fashion possible—they cut the paintings out of their frames. Among the paintings stolen was a Vermeer (one of only 34 in the world) worth $200 million alone, and Rembrandt’s only seascape.
The robbers were never caught. The paintings have never been returned. It was the largest property theft in history. Other than the somewhat amusingly crude nature of the robbery, it is a depressing crime. These beautiful and unique works of art that are part of our common cultural heritage are now hidden in someone’s house or warehouse, and no one gets to see them. The empty frames still hang on the wall in a depression, waiting for their contents to be returned. A pretty bad movie, Stolen (2006), was made about this story. Don’t bother with it. And there’s a new version in the works now. Hopefully, it’s good because it’s a fascinating story.
Someone pointed out to me many years ago—and I’m forgetting now if this was something I read when I was a philosophy major—that human beings have a need for art that is nearly as strong as any of the other basic urges. Go into the meanest and humblest of homes and you will always find art hanging somewhere. Why? People need to see it and be close to it.
The Monuments Men (2014) isn’t a heist movie. It’s a real rarity—it’s about getting the art back AFTER the heist. In the waning years of World War II, many of the great cultural artifacts of Western civilization were being stolen, mostly by Nazis, and intended for private collections. This movie explores an effort to save these treasures from the bad guys. Directed by George Clooney and based on a non-fiction book of the same name about a group of Allied soldiers and art experts trying to retrieve the art that was being stolen by the retreating German Army. Great cast that includes Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett. A real thriller about a heist in reverse.
Cary Grant is just impossibly beautiful in this movie. I mean, seriously, every time I watch this movie, I am convinced that he was the Most Handsome Man In the History of the World. Here he plays a cat burglar (the kind who climbs into your house and burgles), living a quiet life in a villa on the French Riviera. But the law is closing in on him and he seems to be in the process of being framed. Oh, if only Grace Kelly were there to comfort him. Wait, she is! This is a tremendously charming thriller/heist movie. Put it in your queue right now. One of Alfred Hitchcock’s very best.
Okay, now let’s all calm down. I have not come here today to trash the remake of this movie in 1999 that starred Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. I’m just here to tell you that you really, really, really should watch the original because it stars Steve McQueen (be still my beating heart) and Faye Dunaway. McQueen organizes the perfect crime and steals $2.6 million from a Boston bank. Dunaway is the insurance inspector assigned the case who gets a 10% commission if she finds the money and returns all of it. Cat and mouse game between these two hotties ensues. Really, no kidding. You need to see the original. (By the way, they’re developing another remake. You have been warned.)
Again, this is another original movie with a remake that was just fine. (The 2003 Italian Job remake starred Matt Damon and Charlize Theron.) But…the original is just so fantastic you really have to see it. This original starred Michael Caine, Noel Coward and Benny Hill. The entire range of English humor is covered here, from sublime to ridiculous. And we can’t forget the role the Mini Coopers played in the big heist—being so little they could drive up and down stairways and around in sewers, which was fun. Plus, the ending to the original is…well, no spoilers here, but at the end you will cry out at the screen and yell, “What?!”
Honestly, this is one of my favorite movies. Ever. John Dortmunder (Robert Redford) assembled a fairly inept gang to help him rob the Brooklyn Museum of a large and highly valuable diamond, with the goal of getting a big payday from Dr. Amusa, the African rebel leader (Moses Gunn), who intends to sell the diamond to finance his rebellion. Nothing, and I mean nothing, goes right. Dortmunder and his gang keep having to steal the diamond from various locations. Zero Mostel plays Dr. Amusa’s attorney. This is pure funny. I would drop everything and watch this movie. Which, in fact, I have done many times. William Goldman wrote the screenplay, with the soundtrack by Quincy Jones.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.