Part of the fun of movies like To Catch a Thief and Ocean’s Eleven is identifying with famous actors playing thieves, thrilling at their inventiveness and insouciance. But as The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne reminds us, it’s more than just lack of nerve or poor bone structure that keeps most of us from a life of heisting. Doris Payne used that Hollywood trope as a template for her life, remaking herself as a glamorous jewel thief. She plays the part well, fooling countless sales clerks over the years and always looking great—even in her mug shots. There’s a backstage-pass kind of thrill in learning just how she ripped off so many high-end jewelry stores, but this somewhat hamfisted doc is strongest when exploring the flip side of that fantasy.
The documentary begins with a defiantly unrepentant Payne preparing for trial at the age of 80—not for the first time or, as it turns out, the last. Directors Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond first outline her story as the trickster triumph of a black woman, born in a West Virginia coal mining camp, who gets over on a racist society that would never have let her get so rich through legitimate means. Then they begin to counter that narrative, alternating between scenes that invite vicarious pleasure in Payne’s behavior and ones that critique it, such as her robbing of a street vendor selling his own work (not exactly sticking it to the Man), or her gleeful confession of having committed the theft she was on trial for, which casts her steadfast denial throughout the trial and the tears she worked up as she claimed to have been unjustly accused in a different light. They also undermine her triumphal version of events in subtler ways, like when they show her in the spartan room she shares with a roommate in what appears to be a halfway house soon after she brags about the many carats’ worth of diamonds she stole and the millions she got from fences.
Even at 74 minutes, the documentary comes to feel arduous in its recycling of the same points and imagery, the filmmaking as plodding as its subject is polished. Soft-focus scenes of actresses portraying Payne as a child or young woman against primary-color backdrops sometimes run in silent montages behind voiceovers about her past. They’re an effective way to mirror Payne’s romanticized view of her own story, but they highlight the visual drabness of the rest of the film, which consists mainly of talking heads or two-person scenes in semi-institutional, fluorescent-lit settings like shopping malls, hotels, or Payne’s lawyer’s office. Similarly, the Ocean’s Eleven-style music that fades in now and then accentuates the relative lack of drama in footage of Payne describing her past exploits.
But the music is also a reminder of what this doc does better than most fiction films about jewel thieves. Payne’s backstory and her camera-ready crimes make her seem at first like a true antihero, a modern-day Bonnie too cool to need a Clyde. But the more we learn about how easily she rationalizes or denies the harm that her actions may have done, not least to a drug-addicted son who seems sadly adrift, the more clearly that fantasy is exposed as the con that it is.