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Posted: 4:15 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25, 2013

AFF capsule: 'The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne' 

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By Matthew Odam

To be a renowned jewel thief, you need fearlessness, a flare for the dramatic, charisma to spare, and a complete disregard for those from whom you’re stealing. That’s why Doris Payne was able to have a 60-year career as a globe-hopping jewel thief.

The beautiful and elegant Payne is not the image that comes to mind when you think of a professional thief. But when you hear about her rough childhood in racially segregated 1930s West Virginia, it begins to make a bit more sense. Early in the documentary “The Life and Crimes” of Doris Payne, an elderly Payne tells the story of being shamed and shunned by a shop owner for being African-American (as well as part Native American). She turned that anger and shame into a weapon as a young teen, stealing from the shop-owner.

That act of defiance gave Payne a thrill and a feeling of liberation and power that she spent the next 60+ years chasing. But eventually your skills deteriorate and technology advances, and stealing jewels in 21st century America becomes much harder than doing so in a West Virginia or Swiss jewelry store.

The documentary from Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond starts near the end, with Payne awaiting trial for allegedly stealing jewelry from a Macy’s in San Diego. From there, we go back to the beginning and trace Payne’s upbringing, her early forays into crime and the smooth and dramatic way in which she robbed stores of more than $2 million in her lifetime.

Obviously there is almost zero footage of a young Payne actually robbing people, so the filmmakers use reenactments and a recurring shot of a fictional Payne through the years set to Payne’s voice-over. Despite being 81 years-old, Payne is lucid and proves an engaging storyteller in recounting her criminal ways. Highlights include robbing Cartier in the French Riviera and multiple escapes from authorities. Her own biggest admirer, Payne tells the story with relish, a twinkle in her eye.

The history of her life is blended with footage of Payne and her hilarious and foul-mouthed friend await Payne’s trial. It’s hard to tell fact from fiction with Payne, as she tries to persuade her lawyer and the judicial system of her innocence. For a while you want to believe her, and after a point you stop caring. She may show borderline sociopathic tendencies (or at least obsessive ones), but her charm proves a strong lure. Payne sees her acts of theft as victimless crimes, and it’s hard to argue with her. By the end of the film, I wondered who was really getting hurt here: capitalists, amoral blood diamond smugglers? Payne embodies the romantic notion of the jewel thief as an anti-hero who has earned a place outside of the law. Just another one of her excellent cons.

“The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne” screens again at 1 p.m. at Alamo Village.

Matthew Odam

About Matthew Odam

Matthew Odam is the restaurant critic and reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, where he also covers the local film scene and writes film criticism.

Connect with Matthew Odam on:Twitter

Send Matthew Odam an email.

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