Penny Black

The Penny Black (2020)

“I like to be honest, I like being straightforward.” The speaker of these words, Will Cassayd-Smith, prides himself on his honesty. In Joe Saunders’ The Penny Black, of which Will is the principal subject, he boasts repeatedly of his candour and his allegiance to telling the truth. Perhaps it his his way of dissociating himself from his father, a ‘pathological liar’ and convicted con artist who “would sell art that he didn’t own” and who walked out when Will was just six years old, leaving Will with serious trust issues. 

Yet for all his claims to veridicality, advertiser Will also likes to weave – and indeed to be woven into – a good story. One such story, told at a lunch attended by this film’s producers, led Saunders to record Will retelling it the following day, and to document how the story might pan out. The story revolves around Roman, a Russian neighbour from the West Hollywood apartment complex where Will was then living. The two men barely knew each other, but while they were smoking together out on the pavement one night, Roman asked Will if he would be willing to hold for safekeeping several albums full of rare stamps – a collection said to be worth one or two million dollars – until Roman returned for them in two weeks’ time. Saunders starts interviewing Will, who is apparently keen to unburden himself of this story to anyone who will listen, even on camera. 

Will seems excited that the story has fallen right into his lap, and that he is now a part of “something rough and bumpy, and possibly profitable.” At the same time, the story obviously seems suspicious in one way or another. It is not clear how the mysterious Roman came to have these expensive items (he claimed to have a lot more), but the impression looms that they are “illicitly gotten”, and that Roman is far from kosher. Nor is it clear why Roman would trust someone who is in effect a complete stranger with something so valuable. There is something dodgy, ‘sketchy’, perhaps even criminal about this story – something that suggests it might be more prudent to leave it untold – and yet Will is dining out on it, even to a documentarian and his crew who fully intend to put what they are filming in the public domain. Is this because he cannot help naïvely telling the truth? Or is he insuring himself against future danger? Or Is he just making up the story, like one of his father’s confidence tricks? Does Roman even exist? “Nothing is becoming clearer,” Will complains to Saunders – and viewers will feel the same way

At the end of the fortnight, Roman does not show up for the stamps – and so Will hires private investigator Cheryl Baumbaugh to locate Roman (despite not knowing his surname, or anything about him). Will also moves out, effectively making himself just as difficult for Roman to trace (although not for Saunders who, over the months and years that follow, sporadically films Will). Will splits up with his girlfriend Allison and moves several more times. And while Will and the film crew agree to secure the stamp books in a safety deposit box, one of the albums – the one evidently with the rarest, most valuable stamps – goes missing. Will continues looking for Roman, even after Baumbaugh has, for want of evidence, given up – but he also starts searching the internet for people who have had stamp collections stolen.

“All of it, it fits somehow,” says Bonnie Collins, the niece of a victim of stamp theft. “It’s like you’ve got all the puzzle pieces, and you know you have all the pieces. How do you put ’em together?” Her words also serve as an apt description of a documentary – named for the first ever adhesive postage stamp, issued 1840 in Great Britain – that plays out with all the tension and paranoia, not to mention cloak and dagger, of a noir mystery. For this documentary unfolds a twisty, stranger-than-fiction tale, like Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing The Friedmans (2003), Bart Layton’s The Imposter (2012), Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas’ Sour Grapes (2016) and Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers (2018) – yet unlike those films, The Penny Black ultimately replaces simple closure with something more slyly suggestive, as its different narrative strands are never quite resolved.

Will is a charming raconteur, and his story is intriguing, but he is also elusive and at times evasive, making it hard to know where exactly the truth lies. Why does Will start, and continue, telling this story? And if he has not secretly sold on some of the stamps to enrich himself, how exactly is he able to afford a brand new Mini Cooper (the answer that Will himself provides involves a double Freudian slip) and later a yacht? In the end, we are left with far more questions than answers. Despite Will’s repeated professions of frankness and his willingness to keep appearing on camera, something does not add up, and honesty begins to seem flexible, with Will’s ethical choices and makeup being presented “in”, as Will himself puts it, “a fictionalised way.” The result is a documentary that will get viewers lost in their own theories – and arguing with each other – about what they have just seen, as any ultimate message remains undelivered. 

Strap: Joe Saunders’ investigative documentary is an unfolding LA-set anecdote of philately and falsehood.

© Anton Bitel