Gripping tale of international jewel thief and her 60-year crime spree

  • The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne: Current photo, plus series of mugshots circa 1965

    The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne: Current photo, plus series of mugshots circa 1965
    ((Milwaukee, Wisconsin police photo).)

  • The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne: Current photo, plus series of mugshots circa 1965

    The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne: Current photo, plus series of mugshots circa 1965
    ((Milwaukee, Wisconsin police photo).)


To describe ‘The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne’ as a gripping yarn would be an understatement.

Octogenarian jewel thief Payne’s life has been one so unusual and intriguing, you probably couldn’t make it up.

She’s literally swiped gems from under the noses of high-end jewellers all over the world for some six decades, escaped from custody in the most bizarre circumstances and is about to have a Hollywood film made about her life, starring Halle Berry.

Add to that her extraordinary ability to spin a tale, her looks — still so striking at 82 — and an ongoing court case which could see her jailed yet again, and you have the recipe for a fantastic, unmissable documentary.

To some, Payne will be a folk hero, of sorts. A black girl from the wrong side of the tracks, with a troubled home life, who took to stealing to “punish” the white shopkeeper in West Virginia who was embarrassed to be seen serving someone of her colour.

“I did not think I was stealing,” says Payne. “I thought ‘I’m not going to give it back’. That’s different.”

She dreamt, she says, of being a ballerina, but that’s wasn’t an option for a black girl like her. “If I couldn’t be one thing, I could be another,” she explains.

You might buy hook, line and sinker her explanation that race was a driving force in her career choice.

Or you might, as this film gradually and cleverly reveals more and more of its subject, decide to take everything Doris Payne says with a hefty pinch of salt.

Not surprisingly for a crook with a myriad of aliases, birth dates, social security numbers and passports, she is a master at making you believe what she wants you to believe.

The genius of this film is the way it subtly delves beneath Payne’s daring exploits, her enthralling anecdotes and polished performance when being interviewed about her life.

It begins by seeming to almost casually glamorize — or at least make light of — her criminal lifestyle, with jaunty music played over flashing images of the exotic locations she travelled to in order to steal.

But later we see a frightened and very old-looking Payne living in a halfway house for ex-cons and watch her proud expression shift to a kind of shame when her troubled son speaks to the filmmakers about his mother.

It becomes apparent that ‘The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne’ is in no way a piece of cinematic puffery about an urban legend — but a carefully constructed and very clever study of a complex criminal mind.

Payne’s reminiscences about her life are interesting enough, but they are brilliantly juxtaposed against the latest court trial she faces — giving this documentary suspense, still more drama and an utterly absorbing ending.

Chances are that by the close of this film, you’ll be impressed and horrified by Payne in roughly equal measure.

You might laugh out loud when she states, unflinchingly: “My being a thief has nothing to do with my moral fibre.”

You might end up feeling sorry for her or, as one commentator warns, falling a little bit in love with her.

You might think a thief who has stolen $2 million worth of jewellery in her lifetime and has not a cent to show for it, deserves nothing but opprobrium.

What you won’t do in a hurry is forget Payne or what happens to her at the end of the film. Roll on that Halle Berry movie.

‘The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne’ will be shown on Saturday, October 19, 4.15pm at BUEI as part of Bermuda Docs festival.

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Published Oct 16, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated Oct 15, 2013 at 7:39 pm)

Gripping tale of international jewel thief and her 60-year crime spree

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