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Just about the time that certain documentary filmmakers (especially a few adventurous Frenchmen) were advancing the boundaries of the form, TV news director William Friedkin made his mark with The People versus Paul Crump, a gritty, impassioned plea for mercy for a convicted murderer. Arrested in the wake of a 1953 robbery-murder in the Chicago stockyards, black petty criminal Paul Crump was beaten and abused by the notorious Chicago police. He'd already been on Death Row for almost ten years, and had exhausted every avenue of defense, appeal and delay. Reading about Crump's situation in the newspapers, Friedkin talked his boss at WBKB into funding a daring documentary on the subject. Although never shown on TV, the film nevertheless made an impression on anti-capital punishment advocates and other activists concerned about the systematic brutality and railroading dished out to disadvantaged suspects. Most sources say that it did have an effect on the drive to save Paul Crump.
The People versus Paul Crump is a pretty nervy documentary. Making no attempt to present the full picture of the case, it instead openly dramatizes the version of events endorsed by Crump, his lawyers and the editorialist John Justin Smith. The whole movie is a re-enactment. Crump and Smith restate their case and Crump's prison warden defends him in an interview. An actor (Brooks Johnson) plays Crump in re-enactments of the crime, Crump's arrest and his torture by the Chicago police.
The whole enterprise seems like outrageous propaganda until we realize that in 1962 very few documentaries took a neutral stance toward their subjects. Almost always a point of view or a political opinion was being pushed, even in benign public information films. Frank Capra cheated facts and exaggerated in his Why We Fight series of films. Government- influenced short subjects about the atom routinely dodged facts, encouraging viewers to accept official policies without question.
It's always important to ask, who made the film and how could they benefit from it? William Friedkin, the columnist and Crump's attorney were definitely against the death penalty and sincerely believed in Crump's innocence. But all three of them surely wanted the film to give them career boosts. What better way for a reporter and a filmmaker to advance in their professions than being associated with important, daring work?
The People versus Paul Crump will fascinate fans of William Friedkin, because his recreations are filmed and cut together very much like his later live-action features. The re-staging of the robbery & murder plays very much like a scene from one of his gritty urban films, with cutaways to details used the same way. The thieves' car enters the stockyard like a vehicle on the prowl in The French Connection. A cut to a man wearing welding goggles reminds us of Willem Dafoe busily counterfeiting in To Live and Die in L.A., as does Friedkin's in-your-face staging of the shooting of a security guard. The last scene shows the newspaper columnist watching soulfully as a group of black kids climb over some crumbling concrete at a building site. Will they all grow up in urban blight and become future Paul Crumps? Frankly, it all looks like a terrific demo reel for an up 'n' coming feature director.
In other words, the show uses fictional fantasies to sell a particular version of the truth. It's just as suspect as modern TV 'docus' made entirely of recreated events. I'm told that most TV audiences don't make such fine distinctions and will accept what they see as long as it agrees with their basic values.
The docu assumes Crump's innocence, which turned out to be a mistake. Years later after his sentence was finally commuted to life without parole, Crump confessed that he indeed was the killer. By that time he had published a book and taken up writing poetry; the helpful warden put him to work counseling other prisoners in the belief that the only way for a man to atone is to serve others. In the docu's defense, it did indeed get people agitated about the unjust policies of the Chicago police, and it made a strong statement against the Death Penalty. But how one reacts will depend on one's ideas about crime and punishment. We have mixed feelings when the contrite, philosophical Crump talks directly at the camera at the film's conclusion, and gives his philosophical "I'm ready to accept whatever happens" speech. He's a liar using the film to put a barrier between himself and the electric chair. Was the public good cheated from carrying out justice? Or should the establishment forfeit its right to exact punishment on someone so savagely treated by its brutal police?
The docu wasn't shown on TV for several reasons; I'd guess the most important was legal cold feet. But it has shown at festivals and on VHS over the years. It thus served Friedkin beautifully. Although Friedkin later got his first feature film job after directing a number of excellent high profile TV docus, The People versus Paul Crump was always there in his back pocket, a phantom un-seeable achievement so daring that it couldn't be shown. I had always been told the film saved Crump from the electric chair, which doesn't seem to be true. That's how some film directors establish genius reputations.
Facets Video's DVD of The People versus Paul Crump has been newly transferred from 16mm prints, which appears to be all that remains of the film. It actually looks and sounds quite good, and all the dialogue is clear. Marty Rubenstein's jazzy music is cut in at odd moments, to excellent effect.
The only extra is a good one, a substantial essay on the film and the Paul Crump case by Susan Doll, who has been writing for Facets for quite a while. It's an excellent, informative aide to understanding the film.
By the way, although it is commonly written as vs the main title card on Friedkin's movie uses the full word, versus.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The People versus Paul Crump rates:
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.