A creepy couple - with an exciting secret life

The Thief Collector was first shown at Austin's South-by-Southwest festival and reviewed rather well by Tim Hayes in Critic's Notebook. It's not a great documentary: starting with the pseudo-James Bond opening titles (the film title itself is a bit off) there's something naive a little about its style. Above all, the "re-creations" of hypothetical events (always a dubious venture) are almost comically crude. It's sensational, tabloid stuff with speculation about serial art thievery and even the murder of an undocumented handyman bumped off la Tom Ripley and stuffed into a septic tank. It's not really proven; but the "confession" is there in Jerry's book. Important context is carelessly omitted.

But there's a sensational recent discovery as the starting point that begs to be a film. Rita and Jerry Alter, a couple originally from New York are now both dead in a remote Arizona location. When the estate sale conducted by Dave Van Auck, part owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques arrives, what the couple turn out to have kept nailed in a "Walmart" frame behind their bedroom door is one of Willem De Kooning's famous series of "woman" paintings, Woman-Ochre, stolen 32 years before from the University of Arizona's art museum. The crime was never solved. Then, the painting was worth $400,000; now, even despite damaged condition from being rolled up when it was cut out of its frame and stolen, it's valued at about $160 million. Were Rita and Jerry the thieves as well as obviously the secret illegal owners of this stolen painting - nabbed during the Thanksgiving holiday when nobody was around but the museum was open? Well, nobody knows for sure, except that following his strangely early retirement to Cliff, New Mexico, Jerry later wrote a self-published book of stories he called The Cup and the Lip that seem a mix of confession and invention, and there's one story that recounts the theft of a painting that fits the description of the theft of Woman-Ochre. The police artist drawing from the Arizona museum employee's description of the couple who stole the De Kooning also could fit Jerry and Rita, and the car they had then too.

The filmmakers save for later revelation of another story in The Cup and the Lip about a Mexican handyman who slept with the wife, and the husband kills him and gets rid of him in the way mentioned - plus detailed, but inconclusive, exploration of the fact that Rita and Jerry never replaced their septic tank and Rita till her dying day wouldn't let it be touched.

In between there's a lot that's intriguing and incriminating about this weird couple, and their nephew and grand nephew and other relatives freely expound to the camera their surprise and speculation about the couple they thought interesting and lively, but didn't know very much about. Except, that is, that he was a saxophone player and school music teacher who retired in his forties and she was a speech therapist, several of whose patients express gratitude for. It also emerges that they traveled a lot: it must have been expensive. In this travel it seems they were "adrenalin junkies" going on constant and challenging vacation trips. For instance, they went to New Guinea and watched as spectators as warring tribes sport-fought to the death. They reportedly snuck into countries where they were hot legally allowed to go.

It turns out they had some moderately valuable Southwest art on hand, though nothing anywhere near on the scale of the De Kooning. This included a Remington bronze horseman, a painting of an Indian by a famous Southwest artist, possibly at one time some valuable Navaho rugs. The estate art and objects was turned over to a Goodwill-style, store but they were too valuable for them and were sold for the store at auction, netting the store $100,000. Given the presence of this stuff and the couple's expensive travel, the film speculates about a life their family members were largely ignorant of. Whatever Jerry and Rita did, they did if for themselves and kept it to themselves.

Jerry and Rita start to seem bold outlaws, but less and less likable - Jerry was a deluded egomaniac, thinking himself a brilliant artist though his paintings, spread throughout the house, are ugly and unsaleable. (Owen Gleiberman in his Variety review calls them, if anything generously, "ersatz-Peter Max rainbow doodle canvases.") While he considered himself a skillful writer, his confessional fantasies were crudely written and unpublished. Stealing priceless art from museums is prime example of selfishness.

Apart from Jerry and Rita, the film abounds in nice people. The nephews are well meaning, and there's the little old lady who ran the thrift store. Even the cop and the FBI guy seem nice. Maybe they seem sweet because they're thirty years older than when Woman-Ochre was stolen. Foremost are the two guys with the Manzanita local antique dealership who bought the couple's estate and, when they discovered they had the super-valuable painting, immediately, without hesitation reported it to authorities so it could be returned to the university museum. We get to see it being examined by restorers and worked on at the Getty Museum, prior to its return. There are FBI guys who were called in, and the local cop and the local journalist involved at the time, 32 years later, nearing or taking retirement (which we see).

The shot of the cop's retirement is an example that this ilm with some big untied threads ties all the litle threads it can. For instance Van Auck, the antique dealer, still has Jerry's diary where all the couple's trips are carefully recounted, but the day when the De Kooning theft and another suspicious art theft occurred, the diary is suspiciously blank. The antique dealers' honesty has been commended by De Kooning fans. We see them tack up the "Walmart" frame the painting was in in their shop, as if to put the memory to rest.

But the speculation continues and comes slowly to a boil. Hey! maybe Jerry and Rita stole a lot more art and went on a lot of those trips to sell it in other countries, to finance more trips. At home, they lived simply. Except for the Southwest art classics, a valuable Navaho blanket or two, and the $160 million De Kooning. If you came to visit, you were not allowed to flush the toilet. Due to the lack of a functional septic tank, Jerry, or Rita, apparently collected the solid waste from their toilet and took it to the city dump. Hiding a body in the tank could be an explanation for this weird behavior. But all of this is speculation. A lot of voices are heard from. The film stirs the pot. But nothing is proven.

This seems a naive, would-be sensationalist, and ultimately inconclusive film, but it's nonetheless lovingly done, with all the interviews and patient unearthing of background information. (Sometimes the director, Allison Otto, can't resist asking a question from behind the camera, or leaving her question in.) The "re-creations" of Jerry and Rita's hypothetical crimes with the guys in fake mustaches are, no doubt, lovingly done too, though they are garish and make it all seem a little funny. Nick Allen, in his SXSW review, concludes, rather cruelly, that "all you can get" from this film "is a shrug."

No, I got more than that: I came away with a creepy feeling about how selfish and greedy people can be, and wrapped up in themselves and their private "adrenalin high." The moments spent at the Getty Museum watching the conservators lovingly repair Woman-Ochre (which the thieves in several ways badly damaged) using art microscopes and other refined professional tools, is a valuable corrective, providing sanity and context and a contrast to the foggy, unhealthy world we've been wallowing in. The moment with the restorers is a time of peace and respect for art. It reminded me of the many such scenes we see in Suzanne Raes' beautifully made new art documentary Close to Vermeer. That film is a thing of beauty, like the paintings of Vermeer, and this one like the self-centered and evil couple it's about is, despite the nice people who try to help, ultimately leaves a rather bad taste. Variety calls the Alters "Middle American sociopaths living outside the law." Not nice people. But Patricia Highsmith probably could have made an interesting novel out of their story.

The Thief Collector, 96 mins., debuted at Austin's South by Southwest festival in April 2022, showing at eleven subsequent festivals, mostly in the US, including San Francisco, Hot Springs, Santa Fe, and Palm Springs. Released by Filmrise, it is in select theaters in May and on demand May 19, 2023.