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'The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne': Film Review

Courtesy of Films Transit International

The Bottom Line

A remarkable tale is told in an unremarkable doc.


Wednesday, May 28 (Films Transit)


Matthew Pond, Kirk Marcolina

The notorious elderly jewel thief happily recounts her crimes.

Filmmakers Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina bring little flair to a glamorous subject in The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, their introduction to the career of Doris Payne, an African-American thief who is said to have netted and spent more than $2 million in over 60 years of stealing high-end jewels. A long-in-development feature treatment, once slated to star Halle Berry, would likely offer much more for viewers to embrace; theatrical appeal in this form is limited.

Eunetta T. Boone, the author of that feature script, does some of the storytelling here, filling in gaps for a star we increasingly understand is not to be trusted no matter how frank she seems. Payne will happily rattle off a list of jet-set hotspots where she stole this or that dollar figure's worth of diamonds, but when it comes to the penny-ante crime she's now accused of, she swears she's innocent. We start to question that midway through — when she lists the filmmakers as her alibi for the theft, then is evasive when they question her — but even with this development, the narrative of her latest trial fails to hold much interest.

In her 80s when we meet her, Payne has a sophistication and poise belying her troubled childhood. We hear only enough of her life story to make sense of Payne's self-serving justifications for early crimes: She defends some robberies as payback for shopkeepers' racism; another time, a stolen diamond meant her battered mother could leave the father who abused her. ("Me being a thief has nothing to do with my moral fiber," she protests.) The film is much better at storytelling that doesn't involve a sustained sense of chronology, as when Payne recounts a particular escape from the authorities or describes her sleight-of-hand M.O.

Pond and Marcolina aren't interested in judging Payne, but some sentimental devices near the end suggest she has their sympathies in ways a critical viewer may have difficulty understanding. Unfocused editing and Mark Rivett's unimaginative score contribute to a lightweight feel that is best suited to TV viewing, despite issues of class and race that might broaden its cultural relevance.

Production company: TreeHouse Moving Images

Directors-producers: Matthew Pond, Kirk Marcolina

Director of photography: Peter Holland

Editors: Kirk Marcolina, Darmyn Calderon

Music: Mark Rivett


No rating, 72 minutes