Posted by Susan Doll on May 26, 2014
One of the last projects that I worked on at Chicago’s Facets Multi-Media before moving on to another phase of my life was the restoration and DVD release of William Friedkin’s The People Versus Paul Crump. While I was unable to see it through to fruition, my capable colleague Brian Elza did the heavy lifting to complete the mission. Only two known 16mm prints of The People Versus Paul Crump had survived. Four or five years ago, I discovered the worst print, which was in terrible shape, but Brian tracked down a better print after I left. He then steered the project through the high-definition transfer that was created from the second print. Thousands of scratches, splices, and pieces of dirt were removed to produce a clean digital version of a historically significant documentary that could have been lost forever. I am thrilled that the DVD streets tomorrow, May 27.
Most people know William Friedkin as the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist. Recently, he has received long-overdue acclaim for his under-rated action thriller Sorcerer, now available on Blu-Ray. However, few know that his first film was The People Versus Paul Crump, a 1962 documentary about a convicted murderer on death row. Originally shot for television though never aired, the documentary may seem like a relic from another era on initial viewing, but a deeper consideration reveals much more. It is a snapshot of the criminal justice system from another era and the calling card of a talented young director. And, it played a role in saving a man’s life—for better or worse.
The long, sad story of Paul Crump begins on March 20, 1953, when he participated with four other criminals in a payroll robbery at the Libby, McNeill & Libby meatpacking plant in Chicago’s infamous stockyards. During their escape, the thieves shot and killed a security guard. Crump was arrested, questioned, and charged with murder, though the others were charged only with robbery. Within two months, 22-year-old Crump was convicted and sentenced to the electric chair, making him the youngest person on death row in Illinois. His case was retried on appeal from the Illinois Supreme Court, but he was re-convicted and returned to death row. While in prison, Crump was rehabilitated through the efforts of a remarkable prison warden named Jack Johnson. The convicted killer earned an education before becoming a mentor to others. He even penned a novel called Burn, Killer, Burn. The relationship between Crump and Warden Johnson is a reminder that at one time a strong and outspoken movement for prison reform existed, which advocated rehabilitation over punishment as way to prevent crime. Crump agonized over his pending execution. He was repeatedly given a date of execution and then a stay or postponement. Between 1953 and 1962, he received 15 execution dates and 14 stays, some within hours of the designated time.
Friedkin took up the prisoner’s cause around 1960, hoping that a television documentary would bring attention to Crump’s efforts to secure a hearing for another appeal. At that time, Crump maintained that the Chicago police had beaten a false confession out of him. Friedkin interviewed Crump’s attorney, Donald Moore, who freely and frankly discussed the tradition of police brutality in Chicago in order to secure confessions. The film’s position assumed that Crump was innocent of murder, and much of it re-created the prisoner’s version of events. The film questioned the credibility of the robber who fingered Crump for the murder, it re-enacted the prisoner’s alibi, and it included a powerful re-creation of the police brutality using actors, with Crump tearfully recalling the details of the torture in a voice-over.
When the Supreme Court denied the petition for a new hearing, Crump’s attorney pursued another direction to prevent his client from execution. He felt the only way to save his life was to prove to the Illinois Pardon and Parole Board that Crump was a changed man. No request for commutation had ever been requested based on rehabilitation, so the case was now making legal history. If appeal was based on rehabilitation, then attorney Moore could not contest any of the recorded facts in the case. He believed that Friedkin’s documentary would be detrimental because it suggested Crump was innocent—which contested the official facts. Based on this development, The People Versus Paul Crump did not air on television. So, how did the documentary play a role in saving Crump’s life?
Crump’s execution was scheduled for August 3, 1962; Moore was to present his case to the Pardon Board on July 30. He prepared 60 affidavits and personal testimonies from guards, prison officials, religious figures, and others who believed that Crump was rehabilitated and didn’t deserve to die. In the meantime, a campaign regarding rehabilitation versus punishment was waged in the media, perhaps spurred by a press screening of The People Versus Paul Crump.
Just before the hearing, it was decided that powerhouse attorney Louis Nizer from New York City should step in and present Moore’s petitions and arguments to the Pardon Board because of his reputation. On the opposing side, James R. Thompson, a young state’s attorney on his first big case, argued that Crump should be executed. However, before the proceedings were concluded, Governor Otto Kerner decided to commute the sentence to “199 years without parole.”
Did Kerner watch The People Versus Paul Crump before making his decision? Over the decades, accounts have differed on this crucial point. However, according to Friedkin in his autobiography The Friedkin Connection, Kerner did manage to see the film. The governor wrote a note to the director the day after he announced clemency for Crump. He revealed that he had seen The People Versus Paul Crump and had been “deeply moved by it.” It was “a major factor” in his decision to spare Crump’s life, though the Parole Board had voted two to one to execute.
Any feeling of triumph over this victory was short-lived for Crump. Almost immediately, arguments began over whether he could be paroled or not based on Kerner’s use of the phrase “without parole” in the commutation. During this phase of the case, Crump admitted for the first time that he had been the one who killed the security guard during the robbery. Some felt betrayed that he had lied for so many years. Crump believed that the admission of wrong-doing and proof of remorse were essential to receive parole, and he wanted to approach the proceedings with the truth on the table. His revelation also begged the question: Though his murder confession turned out to be true, was it acceptable to have beaten it out of him?
Over the next 30 years, Crump was shuffled from prison to prison. Along the way, he lost his writing privileges, was forbidden to mentor young prisoners, and abandoned his faith after a priest humiliated him during prison services. Within a few years, he began to show signs of mental illness, likely due to his experiences on death row, the stress of two decades of legal maneuverings, and the punitive treatment after his commutation. Parole was continually denied to Crump, including under the long tenure of Governor James R. Thompson—that young attorney who had lost the state’s case during the clemency hearings. Friedkin attended the parole hearings, speaking on Crump’s behalf but to no avail; at one point, he offered to pay for his psychiatric treatments. After 39 years in prison, Crump was finally paroled in 1993. Shortly after release, he deteriorated into paranoid schizophrenia aggravated by alcoholism. He was taken to the Chester Mental Health Center, where he died of lung cancer in 2002.
In his autobiography, The Friedkin Connection, the director expresses ambivalence toward Paul Crump and the film that spared his life. He dismisses the documentary as incompetent and reveals his disappointment over Crump’s guilt. He wonders if he would have made the film if he knew Crump had been guilty. Friedkin concludes, “I don’t dwell on the question because it would mean we both gamed the system. Paul got his freedom, I got my career.” I can understand the director’s disillusionment, but I would hardly call what happened to Crump “freedom.”
Despite Friedkin’s negative view of his debut film, The People Versus Paul Crump is impressive because of its style, which was a dynamic combination of gritty documentary footage and narrative techniques. The film is structured like a narrative: The central story of Crump’s crime and incarceration is presented like an investigation by journalist John Justin Smith, who conducts the interviews. A thoughtful, almost existential conclusion shows Smith walking through Chicago’s projects, watching little boys play around the rubble of the South Side. Will their fates be similar to Crump’s—just another generation of poverty-stricken youth on a dead-end path? The recreations of the robbery and arrest were shot more like a hip crime drama than a documentary. As the robbers cruise through Chicago’s stockyards toward the Libby, McNeill & Libby’s meatpacking plant, the deliberate pacing of the editing creates suspense—not a characteristic associated with documentary. Friedkin and his cameraman Bill Butler (who went on to shoot Jaws for Spielberg) selected specific details to emphasize a sense of location—the car splashes through a puddle on a pock-marked Chicago street, cattle amble across the roadway in the stockyards, the robbers pull up under an old fire escape. The pacing escalates as the robbery unfolds, ending with the murder, which is depicted in a montage of shots of the guard, a raised pistol, and explosions.
The documentary techniques including the location shooting and interviews contribute to the film’s authenticity and urgency. In re-creating aspects of Crump’s alibi, Friedkin and Butler shot footage in several locales on Chicago’s South Side, including a service in an African American church and a scene in a lively barbeque joint called McGowan’s where customers dance, argue, and flirt. Shots of Morgan Park capture the grit and grime of the ghetto, while footage of the stockyards, including the famous gateway to the yards, captures a part of Chicago history now lost. Hand-held camerawork during the robbery offers a verite-like sense of immediacy and spontaneity, though this film is not an example of cinema verite.
More than just a name for the history books, Friedkin remains a vital filmmaker. During this year’s TCM film fest, I caught his 1977 adventure thriller Sorcerer at Grauman’s Chinese Theater—easily the most exciting film I have seen in five years. It is more fresh and awe-inspiring than today’s blockbusters, which are weighted down with derivative CGI effects and dumbed down by directors who cater to corporate-minded studio execs. As a current-day indie director, Friedkin manages to explore the possibilities of new digital filmmaking while provoking audiences with edgy material. If you want to see a film that takes risks by pushing the boundaries of taste and convention, check out Friedkin’s Killer Joe.
From Paul Crump to Killer Joe: Witness this 80-year-old filmmaker show both Hollywood and indie directors how it’s done.
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