There’s two ways to be a successful criminal; be violent or be smart. Stanley Hillis (Jeroen Spitzenberger) was smart. Unfortunately for him, sometimes even being smart isn’t enough: Stanley begins with his murder in 2011, which remains unsolved to this day. As the Netherlands’ top criminal, he had plenty of enemies. He was also working as a police informant, with numerous detectives watching him at the time of his murder. Despite that, his killer has never been found.
Stanley is based on a true story that couldn’t be a more of a classic gangster tale if it was fiction. Over four episodes, and with extensive use of actual footage from the time, it presents the life of a man who was at the centre of organised crime in the Netherlands for over twenty years. He couldn’t have done it alone, of course; the twist is that for most of his career it was the legal system – police, judges, and customs officers – that gave him a helping hand.
A former member of the French Foreign Legion, Stanley first started making a name for himself in the 1970s by robbing banks. The real-life Stanley insisted throughout his life that these robberies weren’t violent; while there’s little doubt he wasn’t above violence on occasion, in Stanley he comes off as almost polite as he relieves banks of their money (sometimes while dressed as a woman).
Anyone can take money from a bank: what really made Stanley’s name in the European underworld was his ability to escape from prison time and time again. Some of these escapes were slick and professional, while others – including his most notorious escape, from Bijlmer prison in 1985 – were more about luck than skill.
In a development you wouldn’t believe if it didn’t actually happen, soon after that escape he appeared disguised in a wig and sunglasses on a popular television talk show. He said he wanted to tell his side of the story and explain how, despite what the media and police claimed, he really wasn’t a dangerous man. It was a full-blown charm offensive and it worked – though it didn’t keep him out of prison for long.
Throughout the series Stanley constantly shifts between time periods. While his early years might have been the most colourful stretch of his criminal career, there’s just as much of a focus here on his later period, where he went from being a stick-up man to one of the most notorious and feared criminals in Europe.
Stanley himself is a bit of a shape-shifter too. As played by Spitzenberger, he’s a nice guy who just happens to be a master criminal, a caring family man who doesn’t like violence, a blackmailer who’ll help out around your house even as he’s extorting money from you. This isn’t a comedy, but there’s a light touch to many of his scenes that make it seem like he really was something of a gentleman thief – until he decided it was time to move up in the (criminal) world.
In the early 90s, in the wake of the murder of Amsterdam’s top drug smuggler, the Dutch law enforcement community came up with a scheme to figure out who was taking over the drug trade. When drug shipments arrived at the border, they’d let them through in the hope of tracing them and finding out who the main players were. Once Stanley got wind of this, he decided to take full advantage of what would eventually turn out to be one of the biggest legal scandals in Dutch history.
Soon hundreds of kilos of drugs were moving freely into the country – soft drugs at first, but before long shipments of heroin and ecstasy became part of the trade. Together with his criminal partners, he was rapidly making millions of dollars while playing cat and mouse games with the law. But that success came with a dark side; the more money and power he gained, the more uncontrollable he became.
Across the course of Stanley he goes from charming and likable streetwise youngster to ruthless drug lord, from a bank robber who avoided violence to a shadowy figure linked to multiple killings, from a prisoner who wouldn’t join his fellow inmates in taking hostages because it wasn’t his style to a gun-running thug who’s not above having his enemies blown up. And never far from his side are the corrupt cops who made him what he is.
At its core, Stanley is a gripping true crime drama about a man who became a monster. The series might begin with his unsolved murder, but by the end it’s clear there was no shortage of suspects on both sides of the law. Stanley could be thoughtful, funny, caring, and above all smart - but even he wasn’t smart enough to see the bullet coming.
Stanley is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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