Hot Docs 2013 Review: THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF DORIS PAYNE is Glamorous and Mundane

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to walk into a jewelry store and pull a pure short-con swindle. Doris Payne, now in her early eighties, remains as wiry and razor sharp as she ever was, pulling one jewel heist or another around the world as she has been for the past 60 years.  Delightfully no-tech, she uses sleight of hand, the expectations of the clerk and a chameleon ability to role-play - meaning she's a wonderful liar!  And there is something rather magnetic (on screen anyway about a magnificent liar.)  Payne has her own level of fame and notoriety in the criminal world, and even at her advanced age, is far from feeling too old to retire from her unusual lifestyle.  But the world, now bursting with technology and chain department stores featuring ubiquitous surveillance, has passed by her criminal moment.

Still, there are avenues available for a fast talker and a larger than life personality, even if it is being the subject of this documentary, as well as a forthcoming Hollywood biopic.  Filmmakers Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina capture Payne trying to stay out of jail and currently on trial for lifting an emerald studded piece from a Macy's department store.  At one point, it appears that she may be conning the filmmakers to keep on filming in an attempt to avoid her parole officer.  Nevertheless, they capture her in private interviews and in public court, as well as recreating her early years in the 50s 60s and 70s with the soft focus and sharp wardrobe of the era.  These recreations add an Oceans 11 jet-set glamour to an otherwise rather mundanely shot doc.  Doris Payne, in her heyday, we are told, was decked out in pearls and designer suits with her signature round-lens sunglasses and jumped from Monte Carlo to Japan to London, swiping (and fencing) about 2 million dollars worth of high-end (but not-too-high-end) jewelry.  Would that the film had more of these recreations in the place of interviews with a screen writer and psychologist whose talking head segments offer a little too on-the-nose commentary.  Far more compelling is Payne's interaction with her earnest (and competent) lawyer, and a trial judge who is exasperated with her rap-sheet.  Payne pleads not guilty, naturally, and insists that her past fame allows any old jewelry store to blame her when a black lady holds up the place.   Doris's best friend of over 70 years is also a quite hoot with her blunt vernacular (four letter words ahoy!) which is leavened by a very genuine concern that Payne will die in prison, alone and ill, if she is incarcerated for another stint.

There is a fair bit of myth making at play here, after all, Payne was an impoverished black girl who taught herself (with the help of a quite educated Jew) to swim in social circles well beyond her impoverished (and domestically violent) upbringing when America was the model of racial segregation.  At the moment, Halle Berry has optioned her life story as a film and I have no doubt that it will be a delightfully embellished tale.  The filmmakers here linger on the rootless existence of someone who is living in a halfway house with barely half a closet of designer-wear to her name and two estranged children.  Doris Payne has parole officers to cater to, and is likely to be spending the bulk of her ninth decade on earth languishing in a prison cell.  The mundanity of her waiting on trial lawyers and flatly lit legal proceedings is the antithesis of the swinging sixties, and that, pretty much is where we are today.  Apparently, it was a good run while it lasted.

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