Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne: America’s Most Famous Jewel Thief
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Labels: Documentary, Doris Payne