William Friedkin is well known to American moviegoers as the esteemed director of such films as The Exorcist, The French Connection, and Killer Joe, but even many of Friedkin's most diehard fans don't know that his career started with this film, 1962's filmed but never released The People Vs. Paul Crump, a nearly hour long feature documentary that may very well be one of the most powerful and thought-provoking documentaries you've never seen.
On March 20, 1953, five black men robbed a meatpacking plant in Chicago's Union Stock Yards. However, their getaway went awry and a security guard was shot and killed. Within the week, all five men were arrested - four received jail sentences and were eventually paroled, but Paul Crump, then only 22-years-old, confessed then retracted his confession before being convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. After having received 14 stays of execution, Crump met a young 20-year-old local television director named William Friedkin who took an interest in his story and became one of his most fervent advocates. Friedkin believed so strongly in Crump's innocence that he and his cinematographer, Bill Butler (Jaws), took to the streets with lightweight cameras to appeal for Crump's return to society.
While Friedkin's efforts didn't actually lead to Crump's release, they did help get his sentence commuted to a sentence of 199 years without parole.
The People Vs. Paul Crump is part of Reel Chicago, a series of Chicago-based documentaries restored and released through those extraordinary folks at Facets Video. This film, now released for the first time after an extraordinary effort of restoration that took the original 16mm film and created a high-definition digital transfer, will be reminiscent of several recent films that have spoken loudly to the alleged injustices of a not always dependable justice system.
Winner of the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival, The People Vs. Paul Crump is powerful on so many levels, from the devastation of watching a man's social and psychological deteriorating in jail to see how the politics of seeking justice can work on multiple layers. When the film was originally filmed in 1962, even Crumps attorney, Donald Moore, was hesitant to have the film released because he believed that it contradicted what was then the argument that Crump deserved release on the basis of rehabilitation. Friedkin, on the other hand, actually opined that Crump was actually innocent. Believing, however, that showing remorse was his only hope actual release, Crump would confess to his crimes in 1970, a confession that devastated his supporters. While Friedkin's position did not change for many years, in recent years he's been quoted as saying he accepts that Crump was actually guilty of his crimes.
Having been denied actual release, Crump's condition deteriorated dramatically over the next thirty years as he was transferred from one prison to the other to the other. After 30 years, a total of 39 years in prison, Crump's mental health was so dramatically impaired that he was transferred to the Chester Mental Health Center in 1999 and died of lung cancer in 2002.
The People Vs. Paul Crump utilizes both archival footage and re-enactments in constructing what is certainly one of the most powerful documentaries of the 1960's and one could easily say is a hidden gem in the filmography of Friedkin. Facets has enhanced the film technically without impacting the harsh grittiness that makes it such a powerful film. The film also includes multiple extras, including the always winning Facets Cine-Notes booklet. For more information on the film, be sure to visit the Facets Video website linked to in the credits on the left.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic