May 2023

Murder in the First (1995)

DIRECTOR: Marc Rocco


Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Embeth Davidtz, William H. Macy, R. Lee Ermey, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brad Dourif, Kyra Sedgwick, Mia Kirshner


Murder in the First is a serviceable, if generic, courtroom drama with one exceptional performance and a couple harrowingly effective sequences. Unfortunately, it’s also a film that makes a virtual lie of its ‘based on true events’ tagline and docudrama style from beginning to end. If you’re looking for a movie to stoke the flames of righteous indignation at prison system injustice, Murder in the First may get your juices flowing, but keep in mind to take everything you see and hear with a very large grain of salt.

As a teenager, orphaned Henri Young (Kevin Bacon) stole $5 to support his starving little sister. The store happened to double as the town post office, making it a federal crime, and Henri was sent to Alcatraz, notorious in the ‘30s and ‘40s as a prison for the most hardened and incorrigible of convicts. When he goes in, Henri is a petty thief. When he next sees the light of day, after three years in darkness in solitary confinement in Alcatraz’s dungeons as punishment for an escape attempt and chronic abuse by the sadistic Associate Warden Milton Glenn (Gary Oldman in scary mode), he is confused, feral, more like a cornered wild animal than a human being, and he quickly jams a spoon into the neck of the inmate who ratted on his escape attempt. This puts Henri on trial for murder in the first degree, facing the gas chamber. Appointed to defend him is fresh-faced recent Harvard graduate James Stamphill (Christian Slater), whose boss (Stephen Tobolowsky) doesn’t expect him to succeed but wants him to take the case to gain experience. But the supposedly open-and-shut case won’t go as smoothly as anyone thinks. Rather than attempt to deny Henri is a killer, Stamphill will argue he was made one by the abuse he received in prison, and place Alcatraz itself on trial.

Like many a courtroom drama (A Time To Kill, for example), Murder in the First is slickly-directed, serviceably-acted by a reliable cast of character actors, most of them in thankless roles, and follows the basic formula. A man who committed a crime but is presented as a tragic, sympathetic victim of circumstances is placed on trial. A hotshot young lawyer is appointed to defend him, and of course they bond and it becomes more important than just another case. There are roadblocks and corrupt authority figures and surprise witnesses and a no-nonsense judge and big, dramatic closing speeches. As a courtroom drama, Murder in the First does nothing off the beaten track, but reliably ticks off its obligatory checklist. We sympathize with the plight of Henri Young, hiss at Warden Glenn, and root for James Stamphill as he turns the trial into a righteous crusade against Alcatraz and its medieval dungeons. And at the end is the coda and voiceover narration usually accompanying a compelling true story, which this gives the impression of being. The only problem is, very little of this is real.

There really was a Henry Young, and he really was a prisoner at Alcatraz in the 30s and 40s, but contrary to the idealized orphan Young stealing $5 to feed his starving little sister, the real Young was a bank robber noted for his aggressiveness who was convicted of murder before he set foot in Alcatraz. There is no evidence he was either kept in solitary confinement for three years straight, or had his heel slashed by a warden’s razor blade, as occurs early on in the film’s most cringe-inducing moment. He was held in solitary confinement after an escape attempt, but it was a normal cell with plumbing, electricity, and a cot, not the dungeon where he is kept naked, with cold water dripping on him and rats and spiders as his only company, for three years as the film rather dramatically makes out. Young did murder snitch Rufus McCain, but more than a year after his release from solitary. James Stamphill is a composite of several attorneys involved in his defense, and contrary to what happens at the end of the film, Young lived on to be transferred out of Alcatraz in 1948 and jumped parole in 1972 never to be seen again, living on for at least thirty years after SPOILER WARNING the movie’s very, very loose version of “Henri Young” dies in Alcatraz. Nor did Young’s case have much, if anything, to do with the permanent shutdown of Alcatraz, which occurred in 1963, over twenty years later, despite the film’s dramatic self-glorification as ‘the trial that brought down Alcatraz’. It’s fine that Murder in the First feels like making an impassioned indictment of prison system sadism and corruption. I doubt many would deny that incidents bearing at least general similarities to the sad fate of Henri Young have occurred, and Alcatraz has hardly the most benevolent reputation.  It’s the movie’s attaching itself to the name of an actual Alcatraz prisoner and proceeding to flat-out make up facts about him that makes it disingenuous. A movie doesn’t have to claim to be based on a true story to make an impact; The Shawshank Redemption told an equally or more effective story of prison abuse and corruption without resorting to misleading claims about being more fact-based than it was. I suspect many of those moved and outraged by the ‘true story’ Murder in the First purports to tell would be more angry afterwards were they to do five minutes of research on Google and realize just how fast and loose the filmmakers play with the ‘inspired by actual events’ tagline.

Putting aside all of that and viewing it on its own merits as a film, Murder in the First is slickly-crafted, although it’s hard to determine how much unfair heft it gains from its claim to be based on actual events that gives it a boost among generic courtroom dramas. Marc Rocco directs with polish, his camera flowing smoothly around the courtroom and lingering on period details and wardrobes. Alcatraz looks suitably ominous, and the script has a fair amount of amusing dialogue. The early scenes of Young’s torture at the hands of Associate Warden Glenn are harrowing.

The most notable thing about Murder in the First is the performance of Kevin Bacon. Despite much of his dialogue confining him to wronged victim clichés, Bacon gives a fully committed performance that shows his immersion in his character: the way he walks hunched over and folds his body up into a cringing ball when he sits, and the way words reluctantly sneak out as if pulled with a pair of pliers until a couple moments see him bursting into an impassioned outpouring. Whatever flaws the surrounding movie may have had, Bacon gives a painful portrayal of a damaged individual and it is arguably an Academy oversight that he did not receive at least an award nomination.  The other most charged performance is Gary Oldman, who gets top billing alongside Bacon and Slater despite only having a handful of scenes.  Oldman is more restrained (by his standards) than his wildly scenery-chewing performance in The Professional the year before, and all the more frightening for it, exploding in brief little bursts, such as when he abruptly smashes a mirror after nicking himself shaving.  Under a thin veneer of a respectable, mild-mannered officer of the law, Warden Glenn is a powder keg of bottled-up rage who unleashes his demons on the prisoners in his clutches.  Christian Slater is adequate, and perhaps more than adequate, but comes across like a lightweight next to the intensity of Bacon and Oldman.  With the arguable exception of R. Lee Ermey, who gets a few choice lines as the judge, everyone else has thankless roles, particularly Embeth Davidtz as Stamphill’s thinly-written semi-love interest and William H. Macy as the District Attorney. There’s a cameo for Kevin Bacon’s offscreen wife Kyra Sedgwick.

Murder in the First has a few problems not related to its factual issues. An intriguing subplot involving James butting heads with his older brother and fellow lawyer Byron (Brad Dourif) is raised in a couple of scenes, then goes no further. The movie also goes overboard in its idealization of Henri’s character even aside from his lack of resemblance to the real Young, accompanying his scenes with dramatic uplifting music that spells out for us that he might as well have a halo over his head, with only Bacon’s performance raising him a little beyond cliché. Perhaps most significantly, it follows the basic trajectory of almost every courtroom drama ever made, with all the stock characters of righteous victim, hotshot lawyer, feisty judge, and villainous officials intact, and never really strays beyond them. And again, the fact that the movie relies on a claim of being based on a true story which turns out to be 99% virtually a lie to generate its emotional weight, leaves a bad taste in the mouth that hangs over everything else. Murder in the First is well-made but generic, and worse, dishonest.

* * 1/2