A terrific true story, a good script, some potent performances and overly fancy, show-off direction combine to mostly strong effect in Murder in the First. The tale of a convict’s hellacious punishment in solitary on Alcatraz in the late 1930s and a young attorney’s attempt to expose the unspeakable conditions within America’s most famous prison, pic has a visceral impact and an underdog appeal.
Film version of the horrible ordeal of prisoner Henri Young was in the works for many years. This is a classic anti-Establishment picture, and its ideal time would have been the 1970s, perhaps with Hal Ashby directing Jack Nicholson as Young.
An opening mock-newsreel relates the escape attempt of four Alcatraz cons in 1938. Of the two survivors, Young (Kevin Bacon) is thrown naked into the hellhole beneath the prison. He spends three years there before killing the other survivor, who had finked on his partners.
Young is charged with first degree murder and is transferred to a San Francisco jail. The thankless job of handling this open-and-shut case falls to tyro public defender James Stamphill (Christian Slater), who ends up using the case to accuse Alcatraz and, by extension, the government’s entire prison system.
Bacon delves deeply into the part to give a very impressive performance. Slater brings probing energy to the fact finding sections, but goes over the top too soon and too often during the trial stage. Gary Oldman makes a strong showing in his few scenes as the fastidious but sadistic associate warden. Alcatraz locations and outstanding production design give a strong sense of time and place.