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The People vs. Paul Crump (1962)

TV Movie  |   |  Documentary  |  1962 (USA)
7.0
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Paul Crump, age 22, was caught up in a failed robbery with four other black men and was sentenced to die in the electric chair. Friedkin so believed in Crump's innocence that he made The People vs. Paul Crump in order to save his life.

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Before directing The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Killer Joe, William Friedkin made one of the most powerful documentaries you've never seen. On March 20, 1953, five black men robbed a meatpacking plant in Chicago's Union Stock Yards. Their getaway went awry, and a security guard was shot and killed. Within a week, all five men were arrested. Four received jail sentences and were eventually paroled. The fifth, Paul Crump, then 22, confessed under questionable interrogation tactics, then retracted, only to be convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. After 14 stays of execution, Crump met Friedkin, then a local TV director, in the Cook County Jail. Friedkin so believed in Crump's innocence and his worth as a human being that he and his cinematographer Bill Butler (Jaws) took to the streets with lightweight cameras to appeal for Crump's return to society. The resulting film contributed to the commutation of Crump's sentence and launched Friedkin's Hollywood career. Written by Facets

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looking head-on in the faces of injustice
29 May 2015 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

Before the Thin Blue Line or THe Central Park Ficw, William Friedkin, who at the time was mostly an assistant director in television, by chance contributed to saving a man from certain death through The People vs Paul Crump. The short of it is that in 1953, Paul Crump was arrested and charged with a murder he didn't commit that involved a robbery of a payload from thousands of dollars and some bad dudes in masks. Crump wasn't there when it happened, though he knew some of the robbers and downright didn't like the mastermind of the crime (in an interesting moment of candor, Crump does say he had wanted to rob the robbers, to get the money for himself, the worst he really got).

Why was Crump fingered? It's easy enough to figure out, but what was staggering (if, sadly, not surprising) were the lengths to how the police went to get a confession - through torture, basically, by stringing Crump up and asking him over and over for those words "I did it." What the documentary here shows is how Crump, after nine years of prison, has never been in doubt that he didn't do this murder, but has had a lot of time to contemplate his life, if 'what goes around comes around' and such things, and, by order of the warden, to help others... while still on death row.

Friedkin is effective in his direction, as is dp Bill Butler, through gritty dramatization on a minuscule budget, and though it doesn't directly invoke the Civil Rights struggle you can feel it in the soul of it. Nothing feels at all fake here, and even as it's the prototype for many TV dramatization-crime shows to come (less the Morris film comparison, which was more abstract, this is straightforward), not a moment feels false or put together in bad taste. When the recreation of the crime happens, it feels raw and violent and terrifying - this isn't thrilling action, it's hard to watch (almost).

Same for the scenes where Crump (the actor portrays him of course) is set up by the police and we hear Crump's own tearful take on this, what the cops said to him - no, not tearful, sobbing, convulsive self - as they pressed more and more to get that confession. Class struggle is there on the screen, and it's a harsh cry against injustice without saying outright 'black people are mistreated'. It doesn't have to say it, it shows it.

It may be at times crudely shot and edited (and I should take off another point for that weird water drip sound effect), but the skill and unflinching nature of the filmmaking is totally impactful, and Crump makes for a compelling subject. It's also finally available on DVD, and in a beautiful transfer.


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