a critiQal film review Murder in the First (1995)

  • DVD
  • Blu-Ray

Plot: After trying to escape Alcatraz in the 1930's, Henri Young (Bacon), a petty criminal, is put in solitary confinement for 3 years and 2 months by Assistant Warden Milton Glenn (Oldman). Upon his release from solitary, Henri immediately kills another prisoner. When Henri is put on trial, his impossible case is given to James Stamphill (Slater), a fresh-faced idealistic attorney, who sets out to prove that Henri had a co-conspirator: Alcatraz.

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With so many choices to choose from on NetFlix® instant queue, sometimes it’s hard to decide what to watch. While perusing the multitude of choices, I stumbled across a trial pic I hadn’t seen: Murder in the First. It starred a whole slew of familiar faces, from Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater to Gary Oldman and William H. Macy.

Barely remembering the movie at all, I decided it was time to give it another look. Would Murder in the First prove to be first-rate? Or would it be just another in a long line of boring courtroom dramas?

Seeing Christian Slater as a lawyer may put a few questions in the viewer’s mind, since it doesn’t seem to jibe with his normal carefree attitude. Unfortunately, seeing him flounder his way through the courtroom sequences doesn’t do much to change the viewer’s mind. Thankfully, Slater seems to get a bit of his shine back during his one-on-one interviews/chats with the prisoner. The two of them form enough of a bond for his character’s actions – mostly done for the benefit of his client with little or no regard as to how it may affect his own career – seem, at the very least, plausible.

Kevin Bacon delivers a truly memorable performance as the abused prisoner Henri Young in Murder in the First. From the twitches and mumbles to the make-up that makes one of his eyes stay half-lidded to the way he nearly crab walks from place to place, Bacon nails the character down both physically and mentally. He delivers a gripping performance that will have viewers hooked.

Gary Oldman also turns in a fierce performance as Bacon’s personal nemesis, Assistant Warden Milton Glenn. Able to put on a good performance for his peers, he keeps his intense sadism bottled up, never to be seen. That is, until he has a chance to unleash it when back behind the relative privacy of the prison walls. Even then, most of the time he seems completely rational and under control. But when his temper gets the better of him, it strikes with a lighting quick intensity that will leave viewers breathless. Unfortunately, the character Oldman creates is so intense, that when he finally does crack under pressure, the viewer has mixed feelings. While elated at this well-deserved comeuppance (however minor), the viewer also feels a bit disappointed at him caving in to what seems to be a rather inferior foe.

R. Lee Ermey gets his seat on the bench – a role he’s well-suited for. His normally harsh demeanor, usually taking the form of orders to subordinates, works just as well for a judge dealing with members of his courtroom. He delivers a few decent barks, just as viewers have come to expect from him. A few other characters, including those played by William H. Macy and Embeth Davidtz, seem to be around more for background scenery than anything else. That’s a bit of a disappointment, considering what they may have been able to contribute if given a bit more of the limelight. On the other hand, a too-quick appearance by Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer (TV)), Bacon’s off-screen wife, is a nice surprise.

Murder in the First, while it may be based on true events, cleans up the story quite a bit to give the prisoner a much more solid following. The idea that this guy wasn’t a hardened criminal, but just a down-on-his-luck teen who got caught stealing 5 dollars – to pay for food for his little sister, no less – makes the abuse he suffers that much more gripping. Viewers will find his former self, despite it’s almost saint-like qualities, much easier to relate to than that of a hardened criminal.

Unfortunately, the film goes a bit too far in it’s re-invention of the facts, creating a guy nearly too good to be believed. Viewers may find themselves easily outraged at this Young’s plight – as the film means for them to be. But, they may find themselves becoming nearly as outraged on finding out how fast and loose the film plays with the true events that supposedly inspired it.

Henry Young did go to Alcatraz, and he was put on trial for murder after killing a fellow inmate, that much is true. However, the rest – including the basis of the film, the 3 years in solitary confinement – never actually happened. Also, the real Young was an aggressive murderer on the outside, not the poor boy looking for spare change he’s portrayed as in the film. Even Christian Slater’s character, James Stemphill, is an amalgamation of several people involved in the real Young’s defense – whose motives were, most likely, more personally beneficial than Stemphill’s altruistic justice seeker. And, despite the film’s implied boasting to the contrary, the case most likely had nothing to do with Alcatraz’s closing, more than 20 years later.

Without the “true events’ tagline, and without any really decent courtroom scenes, this courtroom drama would normally become quickly lost in the pile of courtroom flicks just like it. Most of it’s characters, including it’s “innocent” defendant, hotshot young lawyer and insensitive prosecution team, could be swapped out with characters from various other films in the same genre. Toss in that “true events” taglines, a standout performance from Kevin Bacon that was unjustly snubbed by the Academy (he didn’t even get a nomination), and Gary Oldman’s chilling inner-rage villain, and Murder in the First goes up a couple of levels in the viewer’s eye.

While not perfect, Murder in the First manages to take the rather dull courtroom film and make it worth watching again – even if it does have to cheat a little to do it.

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