Audiences hankering for a new James Bond film can tide themselves over with Landon Van Soest’s The Jewel Thief, an engaging true crime documentary and character study of the criminal prodigy Gerald Daniel Blanchard. During his long career, which began as a teenage fraudster in small town Nebraska, Blanchard dabbled in bank robbery, international credit card fraud, and, yes, the brazen robbery of a priceless diamond-and-pearl hairpiece known as the Sisi Star. Throughout The Jewel Thief, his spectacularly unreliable narration is repeatedly undercut by more grounded interview subjects, including his long-suffering mother and the unassuming police officers who eventually apprehended him.
Born in Canada and raised in Omaha during the late 80s, the nerdy and electronics-obsessed Blanchard took the unique approach of carefully documenting his criminal activities with a video camera. Consequently, much of the documentary’s first half is grainy VHS footage of him and his buddies robbing gas stations or boosting Radio Shacks. Using phony receipts, he would return the merchandise back for cash, eventually making enough money to buy his own house at age 16. His reedy appearance was at odds with his overflowing confidence, which allowed him to talk his way out of most situations — and when that didn’t work, he proved to be a singularly slippery suspect. In one memorable sequence, he managed to elude police custody multiple times in a single night.
After getting caught and then deported to Canada, he progressed from grand larceny to bank robbery, targeting branches that were under construction so he could slip on a hard hat and undermine their security systems from the inside. This tactic valued patience and subtlety over the guns-blazing MO of typical bank robbers, and even the local cops were impressed by his sophisticated methods. His first hit, of a CIBC branch from whose ATMs he stole $750,000, kicked off a prolonged cat-and-mouse chase that can’t help but echo the relationship between Frank Abagnale Jr. and Carl Hanratty as detailed in Catch Me if You Can.
Flush with success (and cash), Blanchard continued targeting under-construction bank branches across Canada. But when he married a beautiful and wealthy German woman, a family visit to Austria in 1998 would cement his reputation as a suave and romantic figure worthy of what he craved most: international fame, notoriety, and respect. When he pocketed the Sisi Star, a priceless bauble commissioned by Empress Elisabeth of Austria, he did so with less than 24 hours of preparation. His motives were, as always, strictly self-serving: the star was nothing more than a bargaining chip against future crimes. His prescience paid off when he was finally apprehended several years later — but not before getting involved in an international crime syndicate that featured a tough from London (literally called the Boss), a stack of blank debit cards, and Blanchard and an associate robbing ATMs in Cairo while wearing burqas to hire their identities.
As with many career criminals, Blanchard was obsessed with the thrill; material gain was merely a perk. His compulsion is aptly described as an addiction, a label that he doesn’t bother to deny. As an interview subject, his commentary is equal parts unreliable, self-aggrandizing, and calculating, as well as surprisingly self-aware. Meanwhile, his tone is often matter-of-fact to the point of absurdity as he relays his often-ingenious methods. Like many extraordinary people, Blanchard’s genius was marred by a fatal flaw: an ego the size of the superyachts on which he often partied with his ill-gotten gains. Filming his escapades as a teenager is a dumb but understandable bit of bravado, but as the scope and severity of his crimes progressed, why go through the trouble of saving deeply incriminating evidence? Perhaps Blanchard was fueled by his ego, believing he’d never get caught. Or maybe it was a sign of something more interesting — a desire to get caught, and to finally extricate himself from the suffocating web of lies that he’d spent his entire life constructing.
At the same time, the international press that surrounded the recovery of the Sisi Star — not to mention this documentary itself — has undoubtedly played right into his hands. Why would a career criminal want to give up global attention and flattering comparisons to James Bond? His shockingly lenient sentencing did similarly little to quell his criminal impulses; an epilogue notes that he was arrested not long after release for stealing PlayStations from a Best Buy. Low-hanging fruit for a “criminal mastermind,” perhaps, not that it mattered: for the second time in his career, he was busted thanks to a car at the scene of the crime rented under his real name. This crucial moment of carelessness is fascinating, and Blanchard’s complex psychology is well worth a documentary of its own, but it seems we’ll have to wait until the next priceless jewel goes missing.
You can currently stream Landon Van Soest’s The Jewel Thief on Hulu.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 28.