Chicago lawyers Donald Moore teams up with high-powered attorney Louis Nizer to develop and present a novel legal argument to save convicted murderer Paul Crump from the electric chair. In the tense days leading up to a parole board hearing, the men work tirelessly to rescue Crump through an appeal of rehabilitation – unprecedented in the state of Illinois – and, after the hearing, anxiously await the governor’s verdict.
Allowing viewers to experience the high-pressure chain of events along with Crump, his prosecutors and his defenders, the film opens a window into the politics of punishment.
“The Chair” won First Prize at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival and was an invited participant at the 1963 New York Film Festival.
Drew later wrote about what he believed to be a key moment in the making of the film. It happened right at the beginning, when he and Richard Leacock arrived in Donald Moore’s law office with a camera and a tape recorder.
Drew wrote: “Moore, very busy, asks, ‘What do you want me to do?’
“This raises one of the key issues about candid filming. It can work powerfully only if the subject of the film is operating on his own impulses. Ask someone to do something and you destroy the possibility of true candidness. They will forever wonder what you want next.
“Moore asked for direction: ‘What do you want me to do?’
“‘Nothing,’ I say.
“We put down our equipment and walk out to a coffee shop. When we return 30 minutes later, Moore is too busy to pay attention to us and we begin to record candidly a highly emotional story. What develops is a courtroom drama of grand and historic consequence in which Moore and Nizer make new law, a life is saved and an historic film is made.”