Murder Most Horrid
"Murder in the First" is the disturbing story of Henri Young (Kevin Bacon - A Few Good Men) who was convicted of a petty crime, but was sent to the hardest prison of them all Alcatraz. After a lack lustre attempt to escape he was sent to the Hole as punishment by the sadistic warden (Gary Oldman - True Romance). Instead of being kept there for the maximum of 19 days, he was left for 3 years, turning him into a confused savage. On being sent back to a normal cell, he struggled with communal life and in a moment of madness he killed a fellow prisoner. The murder case is given to James Stamphill (Christian Slater - Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), a freshly graduated lawyer. Through countless interviews, Stamphill discovers the real truth about Alcatraz and goes on a mission to correct the injustices that he sees.
When I first watched "Murder in the First", in my early 20s, I found it very disturbing, and to be honest struggled to watch it right through. Now, having aged a few years, I revisited it to see if after years of watching movies, I would be able to watch it through. I still found it very disturbing, but also found it a very compelling drama. I feel that, having grown up some what in the years between watching the film, I was able to full grasp how effective this drama was at showing the issues which affected the American Judicial system at that time, in particular Alcatraz. Some of the punishments that you are shown really make you squirm, and I can only imagine the amount of distress and pain this caused. Being shut away in a cold, dark hole for 3 years, with no real outside communication, no ideal of time, is inhumane and is shown in the way it turned the character of Young into a terrorized savage who could not deal with normal life and human interaction.
There are 3 main characters in this film, all of which are excellently portrayed. The character of Henri Young must have been one of the hardest roles for Kevin Bacon to undertake, because how could anyone demonstrate how tortured this young man was. It is very rare that I can watch a movie and forget that it is an actor behind the character, but in this film, you completely forget that Henri Young is actually Kevin Bacon. His demonstration of a torment and emotion is breath taking and I honestly believe he should have at least had an Oscar nomination for this role. The next character in this film for me is Milton Glenn, the warden of Alcatraz, played by Gary Oldman. Having not come across Gary Oldman before, I was very impressed in the way he demonstrated that this man of power had a sadistic side, which was hidden from the public. It would have been very easy to let the sadistic side of the persona control the character and in doing so I feel would have made the character unbelievable. The final lead character is James Stamphill (Christian Slater), in a way it is the weakest of the 3 performances and at times a little unbelievable. But Slater did a good job of playing the rookie lawyer who instead of looking at the case as just a job, he felt for the character of Henri Young. There is also a good supporting cast, with the likes of William H. Macy and Embeth Davidtz making excellent appearances.
The film was directed by Marc Rocco, whose other films I have never heard of. He did an excellent job in demonstrating the horrors of Alcatraz without drawing you away from the story. As you would expect, with such a dark subject, the film is very serious and he could have easily made this drama unwatchable through not letting the story run smoothly and concentrating on the horrors. His use of camera angles to focus on the subjects was at times inspirational. A simple scene where the warden is shaving and speaking to Young is done through the reflection in the mirror being used focussing on the Warden's face but with Young visible in the background.
The film was mainly shot on location at Alcatraz, which was a great help. The actual location helps so much with the film as it really demonstrates how cold and horrible the place is. The film is based in the 1930's and unfortunately the prison of Alcatraz has changed slightly over the years, but unless you were aware of these changes it would not detract from the film at all. The costume and set designer has also done a good job, in clothing each actor in realistic period costume and accurately looking sets. I was very impressed with the look of the courtroom and offices and you really did believe that you were back in the 30's.
What this all boils down to is that "Murder in the First" is a thought provoking film, which is on a par with other prison movies such as "The Shawshank Redemption". The fact that it brings to light the inhumanities which happened in the 1930's and are still happening today is a brave piece of film making in the same way that the film "Sleepers" dealt with inhumanities. The whole film has been very well directed, and acted, especially as it deals with such a hard subject.