It can never happen now, but Steve Talt would ask Dominick Napolitano one question.
“Who did you sell the paintings to?” Talt said, of an imaginary interview with Napolitano, known as “Sonny Black” during his days as a crew skipper in New York City’s Bonanno crime family.
People who know crime novels and movies may remember Napolitano, who played a central role in FBI agent Joe Pistone’s 1970s and ‘80s undercover investigation of the NYC mafia. Pistone, working as jewel expert “Donnie Brasco,” gained the trust of Napolitano, Benjamin “Lefty”-”Lefty Guns” Ruggiero and others during the long-running masquerade. The book eventually ended up on the big screen, with Johnny Depp playing Pistone-Brasco in the story and Al Pacino portraying Ruggiero.
Trust with the opposition most likely put Napolitano on the fatal spot. Once the “Donnie Brasco” operation ended, FBI agents informed Napolitano and others that their “friend” was really an undercover agent. For permitting the infiltration, Napolitano was killed during the summer of 1981.
Talt’s true crime story is not as well known, but people are learning all about the wiry, talkative man — who has lived in Niskayuna for the past 22 years. His story — about an obsessive pursuit of facts in the Mafia-orchestrated 1980 theft of high-value artwork owned by Farah Pahlavi, the exiled former queen of Iran — is the main narrative in “The Queen’s Man.” The documentary film was co-directed by Daniel Claridge — a Niskayuna native — and Andrew Coffman.
The film is available on several services, such as iTunes, Amazon Prime, Spectrum, Google Play and others.
Go way back
While the movie is an economical 86 minutes long, there’s a much longer story behind the camera.
Claridge and Talt both live on Lexington Parkway. The 28-year-old Claridge, who graduated from Niskayuna High School in 2009, has known Talt since he was a kid.
“I suppose it started with the fact that I grew up down the street from Steve and had known Steve a long time,” Claridge said during a recent interview in Talt’s backyard. “As long as I can remember, Steve was just a wonderful life force in the neighborhood.”
Kids could count on Talt to organize neighborhood football games and tell stories from a colorful past. Talt had been a captain in the Army’s military police, had served as a police officer in New Rochelle and — through connections made over the years — eventually landed a job as a bodyguard for members of the Iranian royal family.
Claridge made films as a high school student and continued studying the craft during four years at Harvard. He’s now based in Brooklyn as a filmmaker and editor.
Talt had mentioned the Iranian art heist before, and always thought it would make an interesting movie. He had known about it for years, ever since the score had been mentioned in Pistone’s “Donnie Brasco” book. Multiple paintings had been stolen during a 1980 break-in at a Manhattan warehouse.
Talt had seen the book and took the information to Iranian officials. But the Iranians never launched a major investigation, as far as Talt knew. The bodyguard started his own probe.
“Steve had been doing this without the explicit consent of any of the parties involved and he had been doing it on his own dime, with his own time, for years,” Claridge said. “So we thought, ‘Maybe there is a film here and maybe there’s a painting at the end of this rainbow and it’s a cool true crime story that ends with a success. But even if there isn’t, we both felt there was a story here about the power and the peril of persistence.”
Former FBI agents who worked the Bonanno crew are part of the film. So is Frank Keetz, another Lexington Parkway neighbor who teams up with Talt.
Talt, who began his bodyguard duties for the queen in 1983 — subbing for agents who were off for Christmas Eve — said he doesn’t think the queen was quickly notified about the theft. Talt learned through the “Brasco” book Napolitano was involved, and supposedly told people he had sold one of the stolen paintings for $100,000 — a fraction of its worth.
Talt talked to Pistone, who did not want to be recorded or filmed, and said the former agent told him that if “Sonny Black” said he received $100,000 for the painting — a small fraction of its true worth — he was telling the truth. Pistone said the wise guy did not make things up.
“I wanted to find out exactly what happened,” Talt said.
Claridge said there are two parts to the documentary.
“It begins as an investigation, it’s about the Mafia, it’s about stolen art, so anyone who’s interested in Iran, the royal family, art, the New York Mafia, stories undercover FBI investigations, I think would be interested in it,” Claridge said.
“Then, as Steve starts to butt up against more obstacles and we start to, as filmmakers, investigate the investigator and figure out what’s really driving Steve, it becomes sort of a portrait of a homegrown detective,” Claridge added. “I think we all know people like Steve who are really interested in something obscure that we maybe can’t totally understand but, in some ways, admire.
“Our hope is people really like Steve, relate to Steve in some way and also find the film a little bit funny,” Claridge added. “ So we hope it appeals to a variety of people.”
There are bunches of twists and turns. What happened to the 32 Polaroid photographs of some paintings believed involved, evidence presented during federal court proceedings against mob figures during the 1980s? Will any surviving mob associates talk about the heist? And what about Queen Farah? She never asked for Talt’s help in the first place, and that point is also part of the movie.
Talt believes the queen knows about his interest in the case. He thinks she’s OK with it.
“If she wanted me to stop, she would have asked me to stop,” Talt said. “In fact, I needed access to her cousin, who was the world’s foremost expert in Qajar dynasty art, Dr. Layla Diba. I said, ‘Your majesty, I really have to speak to your cousin.’ The next day, her cousin emailed me and apologized, didn’t know I was looking for her, what could she do for me. If the queen wanted me to stop, do you think she would have had her cousin email me, ‘Hey Steve, what can I do for you?’”
Striking a balance
Claridge said he and Coffman began the project during the summer of 2017 and completed the film in 2019. The filmmakers knew they had to strike a balance between the heist and Talt’s forceful personality.
“The film ends up feeling, and this took a long time to find the right balance for, but the film ends up feeling like a little bit of a negotiation between the filmmakers and Steve,” Claridge said. “That’s sort of the back half of the film.”
The documentary screened at prestigious film festivals such as “DOC NYC” and “DOC EDGE” in New Zealand, where it won best in its category. The Hollywood Reporter gave the movie a thoughtful, positive review — talking about Talt’s pursuit of the investigation and the “quixotic nature” of the man’s interest in the case.
Talt may not portray himself as obsessive. Persistent? Maybe. Determined? Definitely.
The queen’s friend will describe himself as an amateur fighter, and there are scenes in “The Queen’s Man” of Talt throwing combinations during boxing workouts. He remembers his fights as a kid.
“If a guy beat me, I kept fighting him until I beat him, and beat him bad,” Talt said. “Sometimes if a guy beat me, I kept fighting him until I beat him, and beat him bad. Sometimes it took three or four fights to get him, but I finally got him. In a street fight, I’d be knocking on his door the next day, saying, ‘Let’s go.’”
Contact Jeff Wilkin at [email protected]