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

Courtesy of Films Transit International


A remarkable tale is told in an unremarkable doc.

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