Long before making “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” 27-year-old newbie director William Friedkin made “The People vs. Paul Crump,” a 1962 gritty TV documentary noir that feels totally of its moment and ahead of its time, both in its content and style.
Newly restored and being released this week by Facets Video, “The People vs. Paul Crump” is an anti-capital punishment cri-de-coeur, just as devastating and timely as recent docs about the death penalty, from Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss” to “Incendiary: The Willingham Case.” I just can’t think of a recent movie that is more unequivocal and bracing in the way it exposes the American justice system’s racism and its failures, as it chronicles the story of Crump, an American American man who was accused of attempted robbery and murder.
As the Cook County Warden says in the film, “You’ve emphasized punishment for 250 years in this country. And it hasn’t worked. You still have a steady increase in crime on the outside. Capital punishment accomplishes nothing.” And this was in 1962 Chicago!
Boldly conceived, “The People vs Paul Crump” could also easily sit alongside this year’s entries at the True/False Film Festival, with its tensely filmed reenactments, expressive black-and-white cinematography and jarring editing techniques: It’s like Jules Dassin’s “The Naked City” mixed with John Cassavetes’ “Shadows” and early docs from Kartemquin Films.