The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne

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“Who said crime doesn’t pay?”

the_life_and_crimes_of_doris_payne_3By the time I reach the age of 80, I think I’m probably going to be content simply to be waking up each morning. Not so for Doris Payne, a woman whose first conviction for jewel theft came in 1952 and her last – or at least, her most recent, for I think we’ll only be sure she’s done when she’s six foot under – came sixty-two years later, at the age of 83. She’s the charming topic of this documentary, which both looks back over her criminal career as an expert international purloiners of diamonds, and at her then-current legal troubles. Was she still actually at it, almost two decades after normal retirement age? Or is this simply a case of her reputation preceding her, and causing a heinous case of mistaken identity?

It’s a wild tale, which would likely be rejected by Hollywood as implausible [there’s vague mentions of a movie version of Payne’s life, starring Halle Berry, though exactly how far that has got is left annoyingly vague]. According to Doris, She got her start when she was hustled out of a watch store by the owner, when a richer, less black customer came in, and he didn’t realize she still had the watch. Her adoption of a life of crime, using sleight of hand and distraction to confuse sales assistants, was in part a reaction to this – but it also opened the door to a life likely unobtainable to a poor, half-black half-Cherokee girl from West Virginia.

Her career likely peaked with a seventies theft of a 10-carat diamond ring in Monte Carlo, valued at over half a million dollars. Though arrested, she managed to hide the loot by sewing it inside her girdle. On another occasion, she jumped from a moving train in Switzerland to evade the authorities. But it’s the fact that she never stopped which makes for such an intriguing character. It may be a case of rampant kleptomania at work, with her skills now no match for technology, such as the unblinking eye of closed-circuit television, but it comes embodied in the adorable form of someone who you feel should be baking cookies for her grandkids. Which may, of course, be how she (more or less) got away with it for six decades, for the first rule of successful thievery is, don’t look like a successful thief. It’s that contradiction which powers the film, and you keep watching to find out whether she will be found guilty of the crime with which she has been charged. She certainly seems credible enough in her testimony – but, again, credibility is probably the second rule of successful thievery.

Mixing interviews, re-enactments and footage of her ongoing legal issues, the film probably errs too much on the side of falling in love with its subject, never probing beyond her surface or seeking to establish the validity when Doris provides her version of events. While they may have said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” a documentary is likely not the best format for such a collection of questionable tales, regardless of how appealing the teller may be.

Dir: Kirk Marcolina, Matthew Pond

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