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Film Review: ‘The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne’

With the Halle Berry version of her story a no-show, Doris Payne shares her adventures as a jewel thief

Doris Payne, Jean Herbert, Eunetta Boone, Gretchen von Helms, Thomas Jacques, Alfred Molina, Richard Yarborough, Daniella Flanagan.

Doris Payne doesn’t look like a jewel thief. No matter how you picture such scammers, it doesn’t jell with the elegant 80-year-old black woman who stands trial at the outset of “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne.” Exploiting that discrepancy for all it’s worth, first-time feature helmers Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina pull off quite the coup in convincing Payne — whom Halle Berry was attached to play back in 2009 — to open up about her exploits. Turns out the real deal is an even more versatile actress than the Oscar winner, pulling the wool over even the directors’ eyes as she weaves the ultimate revisionist confidence game.

Nearly six decades of stealing jewelry from establishments all over the globe has taught Payne a thing or two about role play, and the prospect of being the star of her own documentary (for which she was compensated) allows the seductive snatch-and-grab artist to weave her own history as she sees fit. For their part, Pond and Marcolina seem delighted to be taken in by Payne, accepting her stories at face value, and even going so far as to stage glamorous re-enactments of their subject in her prime, as played by actress Daniella Flanagan.

Today, technology has outwitted Payne, and her proven methods are no match for digital surveillance, though security footage comes in handy for the documentary — if only the directors weren’t so inclined to believe the thief shown onscreen wasn’t their subject. Instead, this overly sympathetic portrait opens on the brink of the judge’s verdict in the case of a 1½-carat diamond that went missing from Macy’s.

No one wants to see a charming octogenarian sent away for stealing jewels, especially when she frames her crimes as victimless acts of civil disobedience — payback for the way a less enlightened world treated her dreams as a mixed-race would-be ballerina. In retrospect, the supermodel-gorgeous, half-black, half-Cherokee woman can say whatever she pleases about her motives, but the fact remains that she’s lifted more than $2 million in jewels since the age of 23 and, rather than face the consequences, escaped custody on multiple occasions.

The docu can only milk the “falsely accused” courtroom angle so far, considering Payne’s rampant dishonesty (eventually, the filmmakers get a call from her parole officer revealing that she had used them as a bogus alibi). That’s just as well, since the pic’s most fascinating portion hinges on Payne’s colorful memories of her early days. As Payne delivers each story with spitfire wit, audiences are tempted to cheer her victories, celebrating the way she outsmarted bigoted white men and held her own in a partnership with a “Jew boy” named “Babe,” who fenced her loot in Chicago. But the truth is more complicated, as the filmmakers acknowledge, putting Payne’s “career” in the context of the trickster character, even as they wrap on Billie Holiday’s “No Regrets.”

Listening to these tall tales unfold, it’s clear that there’s a Hollywood movie to be made about her experiences, though it’s safe to assume that the would-be Berry vehicle, “Who Is Doris Payne?” (an apt title, considering how little we know of the character’s true identity at the end of the picture), isn’t going anywhere when its screenwriter, Eunetta Boone, agrees to serve as a source in this rival project. The details in several of Payne’s stories don’t quite add up, and the re-enactments — which, along with Mark Rivett’s jazzy score, lend a mod, soft-focus texture to the beautifully photographed film — practically beg for a more robust fictional treatment.

According to Boone, “Doris is the protagonist and antagonist in the screenplay she writes every day” — or, as best friend Jean Herbert puts it, “Her horns are holding her halo up.” Going so far as to steal from a small-time jewelry craftsman oncamera in one scene, Payne seems unable to control her shoplifting impulse (at age 83, she was arrested again in October), and highly unethical in the way she chose to express her proto-feminist worldview. The film all too eagerly allows itself to be taken in by Payne’s charms, trying to capture her human side via interviews with her two grown children, while all but ignoring the all-too-obvious cautionary aspect in favor of escapist entertainment.

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

Reviewed at Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (Best of Fests), Nov. 25, 2013. (Also in Hot Docs Film Festival.) Running time: 74 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Treehouse Moving Images production. (International sales: Film Transit Intl., Montreal.) Produced by Matthew Pond, Kirk Marcolina.

Crew: Directed by Matthew Pond, Kirk Marcolina. Camera (color/B&W), Peter Holland; editors, Marcolina, Darmyn Calderon; music, Mark Rivett; sound, Adrian Spano; sound editor, Ryan McBride; re-recording mixer, Tom Marks; visual effects, Kris Baldwin; associate producer, Josh Benavides.

With: Doris Payne, Jean Herbert, Eunetta Boone, Gretchen von Helms, Thomas Jacques, Alfred Molina, Richard Yarborough, Daniella Flanagan.

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