Posted in: Review

The Penny Black

Look around the poker table, veteran gamblers like to warn. If you can’t spot the sucker – it’s you.

There’s a lot to look at in the mostly intriguing con-man documentary and clearly someone’s being taken for a ride. But who is it? The mysterious Russian on the run who says he has millions of dollars in rare stamps? The young slacker he’s impulsively left them with for safe-keeping, before disappearing?

Or what about the colorful people – a private detective, an ex-girlfriend, a retiree with a grudge – who keep passing through? Is one of them the mark? Or even the real hustler?

It’s a mysterious story and as the movie goes on, the questions compound. Are these stamps real, or forgeries? Honestly collected, or stolen? If they are worth millions, why did the Russian just leave them with this laid-back L.A. kid? And if this mellow Los Angeleno isn’t working his own scam, why has one of those stamp albums disappeared?

That the young American is the estranged son of a British fraudster only adds to the lingering doubts.

Director William J. Saunders is a veteran sports documentarian, and you can feel his excitement at branching out here. This Slamdance premiere cuts artfully among vintage home movies, modern footage, and dramatizations. A tough female private eye – Frances McDormand could play her in a feature – and plenty of urban shadows add to the classic noir feel.

And, like the best film noirs, just when you think you’ve figured out who to trust, your opinions shift.

A visit to one welcoming woman’s crowded bungalow suddenly takes on a weirdly threatening Zodiac vibe. The ominous Russian finally turns up and appears to be surprisingly amiable and aboveboard. The poor California kid who suddenly can’t seem to locate one of those stamp albums inexplicably acquires a very expensive sailboat.

The ambiguities and inconsistencies build. Yet the film seems content to record, rather than report; it’s in no obvious rush to challenge people’s narratives, or pick at the story’s improbabilities.

That reluctance can get slightly frustrating. This isn’t just any stamp collection, after all; it supposedly includes stamps worth tens of thousands of dollars. And we’re supposed to believe the Russian knew this, and just left them sitting in a cheap album? And then forgot about them for years?

What’s going on here?

You’ll probably find yourself still asking the same question after the final fadeout. (Although an end title points to the film’s official website, there’s no real clarification to be found there, either.) Clearly, there’s some kind of con going on. But who’s the real sucker here? Is it the Russian? The kid?

Or is it us?

The Penny Black




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