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Feature Documentary On International Jewel Thief Doris Payne Is Now In Theaters - See It!

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act May 30, 2014 at 5:18PM

Feature Doc On International Jewel Thief Doris Payne Is Now In Theaters - See It!
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The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne

It was last November (2013), when, despite the fact that she was released from prison earlier in the year after serving 2 1/2 years of a 5-year sentence (apparently she was let out early for good behavior), 83-year-old international jewel thief, Doris Marie Payne, who for 60 years robbed some of the world's finest shops, was arrested after allegedly trying to steal a diamond ring from a Palm Desert, California jewelry store.

Payne was charged with felony larceny and was held on a $45,000 bond. 

Clearly, this woman has no plans to stop her thieving ways! She's been at it for decades, has been caught several times, done short prison sentences, released, only to do it all over again. 

Waaaay back in 2008, before S&A was born, some of you might remember the announcement (I posted it on my old personal blog, The Obenson Report) that Halle Berry had signed up to star in a project called Who Is Doris Payne, a Eunetta Boone-scripted, fact-based film about the international jewel thief, whose career spans some 60 years, and who, in case you haven't figured it out yet, happens to be black and a woman!

At the time, I noted how Payne's real life story could make for a potentially riveting scripted feature film, and a plump role for Halle, in the hands of the right director.

In short, she began her "career" as an international diamond thief in her late teens - this was in the 1940s. 

Her reasons? Partly to please and take care of her mother.

Doris Payne

When I first heard about her story, I was reminded of a 2001 film called Lift, which starred Kerry Washington in a very similar role - an intelligent, young, African American woman who shoplifts from upscale, high-end department stores, mostly to please her very critical mother.

As noted previously, Doris Payne was caught, and served successive sentences in different states where she committed theft, which, I presumed, would likely continue until her death. But the authorities continue to release her for good behavior, and likely also because she's now 83 years old.

As recently as 2005, at 75 years old, she served a 2-year sentence in a Nevada jail, on charges that she stole a diamond ring from a Neiman Marcus store in Palo Alto, California, and sold it in Las Vegas.

Following her term in Nevada, she was transferred to a prison in Denver, Colorado to serve a 4-year sentence for a similar crime elsewhere, and so on.

From what I've learned about Payne, she seems to relish this questionable, yet likely thrilling life she has led as a jewel thief for almost her entire existence. Certainly, she has some regrets; but, at over 80 years old today, she's seen the world, stealing from jewelers in places like Paris, Monte Carlo, Japan and more, and lived the kind of life many of us can only dream of, given how prolific a thief she was, stealing countless diamonds, costing tens-of-thousands of dollars each, and selling them for tidy sums.

What's even more fascinating about all this is that, she was able to do this for decades, as a black woman, beginning in a time in our history when black people were already under intense, conspicuous "surveillance" and scrutiny.

Reading between the lines of some of Doris Payne's statements, she will likely do it all again, if she's set free again!

So what happened to the Halle Berry project? It probably died. At the time of the announcement, there was no word on when it would go into production, nor who its director would be.

I doubt it'll ever happen; and if it does, it likely won't be with Halle Berry anymore. 

In the meantime however, you should be aware of this upcoming new documentary on Doris Payne's life, titled The Life And Crimes Of Doris Payne, directed by Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina

Here's their summary of the feature:

A glamorous 81-year-old, Doris Payne is as unapologetic today about the $2 million in jewels she’s stolen over a 60-year career as she was the day she stole her first carat. With Doris now on trial for the theft of a department store diamond ring, we probe beneath her consummate smile to uncover the secrets of her trade and what drove her to a life of crime. Stylized recreations, an extensive archive and candid interviews reveal how Payne managed to jet-set her way into any Cartier or Tiffany’s from Monte Carlo to Japan and walk out with small fortunes. This sensational portrait exposes a rebel who defies society’s prejudices and pinches her own version of the American Dream while she steals your heart.

Not that I condone stealing, but I think this is an absolutely riveting story, far more interesting than some of the fiction that makes it to theaters these days; and while I'm certainly interested in seeing the documentary, I'd really love to watch a scripted narrative film, with the right talent and budget, on Payne as well. 

In addition to Lift (the Kerry Washington drama), the story also reminds me of Chameleon Street - another film about a real life African American con.

The documentary from Pond and Kirk made its world premiere at the Hot Docs documentary film festival, last year, and after traveling the film festival and screening series circuit, is now making its USA theatrical premiere, in a 2-week engagement, May 28 – June 10, at Film Forum, in New York City, with screenings daily at 12:45, 2:40, 4:30, 6:20, 8:10, and 10:00.

From Film Forum's press release:

Film Forum is pleased to present THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF DORIS PAYNE, a documentary on a woman who is possibly the world’s most unlikely recidivist jewel thief. At 83, Doris Payne is still elegant, charismatic, and articulate –- but with a 60-year career in crime, 32 aliases,10 birth dates, 11 social security numbers, and 9 passports. She’s successfully fleeced Tiffany and Cartier, escaped from custody in Europe with a hot 10-carat diamond, and passed herself off as Otto Preminger’s wife. We catch up with Payne as she faces new charges that she’s taken a diamond ring from Macy’s in San Diego. Judge Brown sums it up: “She’s charming. She’s Santa Claus’s wife. She’s a thief.” A thief so singular in style and achievement, that Halle Berry has been in talks to play her in a biopic. Doris Payne was brought up in the segregated South in the 1930s: a poor, single, African-American mother of two. Her charm and beauty were an obvious advantage. For years she had an accomplice/“fence” with whom she was romantically involved. Even so, it is still hard to fathom how she stole $2 million in jewelry in heists spanning several continents, and eluded the police and FBI countless times. Is Doris Payne a “psychopath” as one of her victims contends? An old-fashioned trickster in the mode of Br’er Rabbit, as a UCLA English professor suggests? Or just a woman trying to make ends meet who claims you can’t be accused of cheating in a world in which the game is already rigged?

This will give New Yorkers an opportunity to finally see the film, which I expect will travel to other cities in successive weeks. And when we have information on future playdates, we'll certainly share here.

Check out its trailer & poster below:

This article is related to: In Theaters


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