The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne: The Octogenarian Jewel Thief


Who knew that being lied to for 75 minutes could be so agreeable — and revealing? Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina’s knotty, crowd-pleasing doc dishes the life of octogenarian jewel thief Doris Payne, a charming African-American woman who credits her (alleged) $2 million haul over a half-century of ballsy sleight-of-hand to the fact that, finely dressed and hewing to brittle upper-crust mores, “I’m sure they didn’t see me as a black American woman.”

She adds, “I’ve had people say to me, ‘Oh, you’re not black. You don’t act black.'”

Payne herself narrates much of her story, hilariously, sometimes touchingly, often with the prideful edge of someone who knows she’s achieved a sort of pioneering greatness but that the world will never love her for it. As she tells it, she first stole as a little girl in Slab Fork, West Virginia, strutting off with a watch a small-town clerk had been showing her until a white customer came in and suddenly the clerk ignored her. That tale is smoothed and honed as a skipping stone, and she’s clearly winged it many times. Like any good origin story it has coded in it something of a prime directive: If white people treat her like that, and if society affords her no chance to get ahead, she’s going to grab what she’s going to grab. Of her own motivations, she says, “Once the race thing was set up, it was [about] punishment.”

Payne is as great a self-mythologizer as she is a thief. When she describes pretending to be Otto Preminger’s wife as she loots Monte Carlo, it’s hard not to cheer her on, no matter what agendas lurk behind whatever true-ish escapades she spins for the camera. Still, the film is rich in character drama as well as escapades. Working out why she says the things she says proves as fascinating as hearing how she pulled off, say, that dazzling theft in Monaco, or that escape from police custody on a moving train. Eighty at the time of filming, the onscreen Payne seems torn between two impulses: celebrating her thrilling, unlikely life and career, and keeping circumspect about its dispiriting current chapter — she’s facing a couple years in prison (not her first), this time after being accused of walking out of a San Diego Macy’s with an eight-grand rock.

Payne turns her nose up at the thought of boosting such a comparatively low-end diamond: In her day, she raided Cartier.

There’s surprisingly potent drama in the question of whether or not this career thief stole this one piece. The prosecution has videotape, but the image is blurred enough not to be conclusive. The store clerk describes an M.O. that matches Payne’s: A woman, elegantly dressed, asks to try on an assortment of items, and then leaves the store without quite relinquishing them. (Payne insists that, over the years, she never planned what she would take, and she never got stopped leaving a store — she just palmed a piece or two and split.) The defense’s best hope lies in arguing that the employees who fingered Payne only identified her after reading an article about her online, and that the woman in the store could be any number of African-American women, not just the one famous for being a jewel thief.

The film shows us Payne’s consultations with her lawyer, and the reasoning, all a bit mad, that inspires her not to take a generous plea deal. “If she goes to jail again, I think she’ll come back out in a body bag,” says Jean, a dear old friend from before Payne’s notoriety. Jean lacks the lady-of-the-world bearing Payne developed over the years, but she’s a wonderfully salty presence: “That son of a bitch,” she says, of the judge presiding over Payne’s case. “I’d like to go kick him in the nuts.”

The directors develop this miserable scenario in counterpoint to Payne’s storied past, which is recalled with invigorating brio. (They illustrate it with romanticized re-enactments.) It’s part caper comedy, part revenge tale, and part glorious whopper. Payne’s history as a charismatic and wildly successful prevaricator casts a pall over her current professions of innocence, of course. And it doesn’t help that at one point the filmmakers catch her using them as an alibi for time she’s spent outside of her court-ordered housing without them. Her lies turn increasingly desperate: “My being a thief has nothing to do with my moral fiber,” Payne claims at her lowest point. “It has to do with my behavior.” Whatever distinction she thinks she’s making there is lost on the powers she’s addressing. I’ll say nothing more about how the case works out, except this: A skilled liar can always convince herself, if nobody else, that she’s gotten the last laugh.

One of the directors’ smartest moves is to haul in academics to thumbnail the history of the trickster figure in African-American folklore; another, surprisingly, is to make their most prominent non-Payne talking head the screenwriter of a feature film about Payne. The likable Eunetta Boone has a storyteller’s sense of what to boil all this rich material down to, and she manages to honor the complexity of race, crime, American life, and the print-the-legend pleasures of a tale well told.