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Murder in the First (1995)

Murder in the FirstA review by C J Dee

Director: Marc Rocco
Starring: Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, William H. Macy
Other notable appearances: Brad Dourif, Stephen Tobolowsky
Running time: 122 minutes
Watch this if you liked: A Few Good Men, Philadelphia
Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

“This film is inspired by a true story.”

Henri Young (Bacon) was sent to prison for stealing five dollars from a post office. He was sent to Alcatraz prison. He tried to escape.

As punishment for the failed escape attempt, Henri is sent to solitary confinement. The hole. The dungeon. Henri is beaten and only allowed one thirty-minute period outside over the entire three-year period he spends in solitary confinement. During this time he is crippled – physically and emotionally.

Once Henri is released back into the general population as a broken man, he snaps and stabs another inmate to death with a spoon. That the other inmate was involved in the escape attempt but informed thus escaping solitary confinement is of no concern to the system that immediately tries Henri for murder in the first degree. A crime punishable by death.

Young lawyer James Stamphill (Slater) is given the case. His boss feels it is a no-win case and that it should be easy for the rookie. However, James sees something in Henri. A petty thief who became a cold-blooded killer doesn’t sit well with James. Once he investigates the circumstances of Henri’s incarceration, James realises Henri was just the weapon. Alcatraz was the murderer.

I am flabbergasted as to why Kevin Bacon did not win an Oscar for this role. Not even nominated! His performance of the shattered Henri Young was soulful, deep and believable. Even down to developing minute nervous tics and eccentricities, Bacon nailed it.

Gary Oldman was marvellous as the sadistic assistant warden. Even 20 years ago, Oldman was giving outstanding performances in a variety of roles.

The story itself is a compelling courtroom drama with a predictable plot and decent dialogue. Would Murder in the First have been as interesting if it were set in any other prison? Probably not. There is something about Alcatraz that continues to enthral and intrigue people to this day.

Watch Murder in the First if you like courtroom dramas; are intrigued by Alcatraz; or are a hardcore fan of Bacon, Oldman or Slater.

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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