With The Life And Crimes Of Doris Payne, directors Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina have made a documentary that, like its protagonist, overflows with wild tales of con jobs, diamond-pilfering, and daring dashes from law enforcement. As one of the most notoriously slippery international jewel thieves in history, Payne clearly relishes in sharing her story, which often glimmers with a retro crime-life glamour that puts her in the same movie-con-artist league as Catch Me If You Can’s Frank Abagnale Jr.
Unlike Abagnale, however, Payne—who grew up poor in a West Virginia coal-mining town before she became a jet-setting gem-snatcher—is still actively pulling one over on her unwitting victims, even though she’s well into her 80s. In a criminal career that has spanned more than six decades, the octogenarian has, according to the film, stolen more than $2 million worth of jewels, assumed 32 aliases, claimed 11 different Social Security numbers, and escaped from police custody on several occasions, including one that involved leaping off a train in Switzerland in the dark of night. She happily explains all of this directly to the camera throughout The Life And Crimes Of Doris Payne, all while looking about as threatening as a grandmother holding a hot mug of Earl Grey.
Payne’s polished, charming manner is her greatest asset, and what makes it so easy to listen to her reminiscing fondly about ripping off high-end stores, or justifying her behavior without expressing even the faintest whisper of regret. “My being a thief,” she says at one point, “has nothing to do with my moral fiber.”
To Pond and Marcolina’s credit, this isn’t just a character study of an ever-adventurous klepto-gran. The documentary also raises questions about whether a professional liar can ever really stop lying, and why it becomes so easy for those around Payne to continue believing in her, even when common sense might scream otherwise.
The filmmakers use the outcome of a 2010 case in which Payne was charged with stealing a ring from a San Diego Macy’s to bookend the documentary and provide some effective narrative suspense. As the case proceeds to trial, and it becomes clear that the aging Payne—who insists that this time, she’s actually innocent—may have to serve prison time again, Pond and Marcolina plant just enough seeds of doubt to make the audience unsure whether to root for acquittal.
While the movie relies largely on images of court documents, old photos, and interviews with Payne, her best friend, her children, and others who know her story, the filmmakers sometimes resort to awkward reenactments to visually fill in her backstory. The temptation to go there is understandable: When Payne and Eunetta Boone, who wrote the screenplay for a feature film based on Payne’s exploits, describe how this elegantly dressed woman clandestinely moved a stolen Cartier diamond ring to various parts of her body so airport security wouldn’t find it, there’s a natural desire to watch how that all went down.
Those moments are a reminder that the movie Boone wrote—it’s called Who Is Doris Payne?, and at one point, Halle Berry was attached to as its star—still hasn’t been made, and that’s a serious shame. Hollywood desperately needs more big, bold pictures with complicated African-American women in central roles, and this one seems like a natural. But until that happens, if ever, there’s this documentary, the real-deal look at a lady whose sleight-of-hand skills laid the foundation for a full, fascinating, and sad life, one with as many facets as those shimmery diamonds she’s devoted decades to swiping.