'The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne': A Jewel Thief Remains Elusive

The film can't grant you access to what's true or what's not, it can't actually tell Doris Payne's incredible story; it can only observe her as everyone else does, guessing at how and what she might mean.

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne

Director: Matthew Pond, Kirk Marcolina
Cast: Doris Payne, Jean Herbert, Eunetta Boone, Gretchen von Helms, Thomas Jacques, Alfred Molina, Richard Yarborough, Daniella Flanagan
Rated: NR
Studio: Treehouse Moving Pictures
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-05-28 (Limited release)

"You don't have to have a destination in mind, so long as you're moving." Looking back on her long life, 80-year-old Doris Payne is proud to say that she's traveled far and often for her work, to London and Milan, Paris and Rome, places as distant as possible from where she was born, in West Virginia coal mining camp. As she ticks off the names, The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne shows postcard images, familiar signs of each place, along with dollar and pound amounts. These numbers indicate the money she made as she traveled, money she was paid by fences or dealers for jewelry she stole.

Indeed, Payne has been many places, including jail, repeatedly and frequently. For, as quick and practiced as she was in eluding police, she was caught, arrested and sentenced. Still, she asserts, even these sojourns weren’t so bad, as she recalls how she was able to escape from various institutions, sometimes with help, sometimes on her own. As Payne tells it, her crimes have been adventures, comparable to those depicted in movies she admires, like To Catch a Thief, glamorous and daring acts of rebellion and nerve, rather than offenses against the law or ruptures in social order.

And yet… this isn't the only story framed by Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina's documentary, screening now at the Film Forum in New York, which includes not only multiple interviews with the resolute and insistently wily Payne, but also other perspectives. These range from interviews with other subjects, some people who know her and some who don't, and reenactments, some illustrative and some weirdly dreamy, as if imagining a state of mind or a moment that remains incomprehensible. The movie doesn't pin down a single story or motive or even a series of events as much as it wonders about what's happened, as a series of events and also, importantly, as a series of motives and circumstances.

None of these comes quite clear in the film, which uses visual strategies ranging from clumsy (montages and maps) to intriguing (Payne's own posing for moments of portraiture, so plainly artificial and so profoundly illegible). The most obvious rationale for Payne's choices, framed by Richard Yarborough, an English professor at UCLA, and Eunetta Boone, who wrote a screenplay for a fiction film version of Payne's life that has yet to be made, is that she was working out a complex raft of social, psychological, and historical contexts.

Born in into poverty and witness to her father's longtime abuse of her mother, Payne appears to have sorted out a particularly satisfying (if exceedingly difficult) way to fight back against ostensibly legal power structures turned into misogyny and racism and class prejudice. These rationales make sense, and Payne supplies more grist for such mills, as she recalls a seminal childhood memory, when a jewelry store owner in her hometown treated her badly, and in such a way that she was able to shame him publicly and also understand the emotional and political value of a thing -- in this case a watch -- that extended far beyond its price.

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne goes on to explore this part of Payne's reasoning, as she stands differently in different collective memories. To a San Diego detective called in to work on her latest arrest -- a court case that goes on during the film's production -- she's a thief plain and simple, a criminal who feels no remorse and has learned no lessons. To her childhood friend Jean Herbert, Payne is a "good person" who would share her money with family and friends. And to Yarborough, she's part of a tradition, a "trickster," getting over on all sorts of oppressors in ways that can't be calculated. As he puts it, "I suspect that Doris is gaining a lot of psychological satisfaction and amusement from her adventures."

Such assessment from afar makes for a good story, and it's the sort of framing that makes Doris Payne enduringly legendary and appealing. The film augments it too, with reenactments of Doris in the '70s (performed by Daniella Flanagan), in which she's enchanting and alluring, dressed in beautiful outfits and shot in filtered-light close-ups, as Payne explains in voice-over the importance of looking the part of an affluent consumer, of looking perfectly appointed and behaving in a perfectly appropriate way.

Here, of course, it becomes obvious how class and race shape assumptions, as Payne recalls various responses to her act, in Monte Carlo or on Rodeo Drive or in New York City, in Macy's or Cartier. As Payne describes a particular stunt or remembers her thrill when it worked, she's charming, her self-portrayal as an outlaw working against a corrupt larger system, not individuals. "I've had many, many people say to me, 'You're not black, you don't act black,'" she offers, linking class and race in her own judgment of that system.

This narrative of Payne's resistance is reframed by interviews with her son Ronnie (whose performance here suggests Payne is right to suspect he's an addict) and daughter Donna (who only appears in silhouette, though she insists Payne was a good mother to her). And as you might be wondering about how her choices affected others, the film submits an intertitle saying the filmmakers have been contacted by her parole officer, suggesting she has used the filmmakers as an alibi.

When the filmmaker asks her about it, on camera ("On the sign-in sheet, you listed me as the person you were with on the 19th"), she responds with a few semantic dodges and then acts as if she's the offended party. When the police call him, she tells her interviewer, he can say what he wants. "Say I wasn't there if it makes you feel saintly," she sniffs, "You can say I wasn't there. I'm all right with that."

It's a brief moment in a film about a long life, and one that resets the frame once more. Nothing she's said might be true, and it might all be true. She serves multiple functions for multiple readers, the filmmakers as well as the police, her lawyer as well as an expert on tricksters. The film can't grant you access to what's true or what's not, it can't actually tell Payne's incredible story. It can only observe her as everyone else does, guessing at how and what she might mean.

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