J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne: America’s Most Famous Jewel Thief

To be a jewel thief, you have to talk the talk and walk the walk. Even though Doris Payne was born into a life of poverty and segregation, she never had trouble passing for an elegant society lady. Criminals also have a saying about not doing the crime if you can’t do the time. She takes issue with that one. Nonetheless, she finds herself on trial facing a de facto life sentence in Matthew Pond & Kirk Marcolina’s The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Doris Payne has been doing this for sixty years. It is easy to forgive, or even applaud her first score, perpetrated solely to finance her mother’s escape from her abusive father. Initially, she capitalized on the “invisibility” of an African American woman from clerks eager to wait on presumably more affluent customers. However, she soon adopted the role a woman of means and position, literally taking her act global.

Some of Payne’s exploits would sound fanciful if she did not have the arrest records to prove them. She has seen the insides of many a prison cell in several countries, but somehow providence always intervened. Unfortunately, providence seems to be running late at her current trial.

Frankly, there is a bit of a disconnect between the heists Payne gleefully describes and her protestations of innocence this time around. Essentially, she falls back on snobbery as a defense, claiming she would never steal from such a gauche store as Macy’s. Yet, from time to time, Pond & Marcolina catch her playing them. As charming and innocent looking as Payne might be, viewers will eventually understand the truth is a movable goalpost for her.

Arguably, Pond & Marcolina could have and should have challenged her more in their interview segments, but it is clear they preferred to print the legend, for good reason. There is something very appealing about Payne, the international woman of mystery, romancing Damon Runyonesque accomplices and evading the Swiss police (all of which is true). We want to enjoy her adventures, investing them with the spirit of a racially conscious Raffles, so it is hard to fault the filmmakers for not following up with the various sales associates who might have been fired or the smaller stores that might have been shuttered due to increased premiums and loss of valuable inventory. Nonetheless, the absence of such deeper digging is conspicuous.

Still, by doc standards, Life and Crimes is unusually entertaining, even when Payne’s sociopathic tendencies peak through. Pond & Marcolina keep the pace brisk, getting a nice assist from Mark Rivett’s retro-groovy score. When its over, audiences will definitely keep their hands firmly on their wallets as the file out of the theater. Recommended for fans of true crime and too-true-to-believe documentaries, The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne opens this Wednesday (5/28) at Film Forum.

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