Rediscovered ’60s Death-Row Doc Walks the Thin Blue Line


You may not be able to accurately tag William Friedkin’s The People vs. Paul Crump (1962) a forgotten film—in most senses, it has never been truly known. Made for network TV by the budding twentysomething filmmaker but never aired, Crump didn’t earn a blip on the radar despite festival screenings and a short-lived and questionable VHS edition decades ago. Showing at Anthology’s Walking Picture Palace series in an archival print recently struck for the Torino Film Festival, Crump is a mad, agitprop fever-spike—a primo example of what one salient critic once called “vulgar modernism.” Crude, rude, and bursting with ‘tude, Crump is historically a kind of verité-era prophecy of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line—both in its focus on an unjustly convicted death-row convict and in its brazen chop-shop approach to the precepts of documentary filmmaking.

Friedkin follows reporter John Justin Smith into the Cook County Jail to interview Crump, a black Chicago man set up by his cohorts for a stockyards-robbery murder he didn’t commit. (Friedkin re-enacts the crime in a rough-and-tumble, Phil Karlson style.) Still, Crump is so fictionalized—starting with the re-enactments and continuing through Smith’s rehearsed proto-noir interrogation—that it constitutes more of a furious prison ballad than a work of nonfiction. (The opening shot, of Crump standing at his bars as another convict blows on a harmonica in the foreground, is a crucial, melodramatic-cliché tipoff.) No small amount of pre-Kiarostamian frisson is mustered by the presence of Crump’s mother, Lonnie, who plays herself in flashbacks trying to dissuade the infamous Chicago fuzz from apprehending her son, portrayed by Brooks Johnson.

About an hour long, Crump is economical yet flamboyantly righteous, as it should have been—the existence of the film played at least a small part in keeping Crump out of the chair. (He spent 39 years in stir before being paroled in 1993.) For our purposes, Friedkin’s firecracker stands brazenly center stage in a suite of revived films conjoined by way of the “tranquility of influence”—as opposed to “anxiety”—with which raw film images and motifs get relayed from one work to the next. Thus, Crump is buttressed (on different days) by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), naturally; Stan Brakhage’s Eyes (1971), the master’s fractured remake of a Quinn Martin cop show by way of the very real Pittsburgh police; Ken Jacobs’s Perfect Film (1986), in which news footage of witnesses to Malcolm X’s assassination is presented as is, “perfectly”; and Bruce Conner’s magisterial Report (1967), a frighteningly eloquent found-footage essay on the JFK killing that renders virtually every other consideration of the cultural moment obsolete.