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 underdog appeal that will connect with serious-minded audiences, although it will hardly be everyone’s idea of what to do with a night out, resulting in fair-to-middling B.O. prospects.
Film version of the horrible ordeal of prisoner Henri Young has been in the works for many years, and the drama’s passionate advocacy of prisoners’ rights and rehabilitation over harsh treatment and tough sentences flies in the face of the current three-strikes-and-you’re-out mood.
In format, this is a classic anti-Establishment picture, and it seems almost jarringly iconoclastic in the current Zeitgeist. Its ideal time would have been the early 1970s, perhaps with Hal Ashby directing Jack Nicholson as Young.
Be that as it may, scenarist Dan Gordon has done an intelligent job laying out the tragic downward spiral of Young’s life. 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 dungeon, a hellhole beneath the prison without light or any amenities. He spends three years there before being released, whereupon the now-deranged fellow understandably assaults and kills the other survivor, who had finked on his partners.
This act at least frees Young from Alcatraz, as he is charged with first degree murder and 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 has trouble getting Young even to talk to him at first but ends up using the case to accuse Alcatraz and, by extension, the government’s entire prison system, of gross mistreatment and crimes against humanity.
Fact that Young landed in prison in the first place simply for stealing $ 5 from a rural post office during the Depression invests the story with a built-in sense of massive injustice, and the momentum of Stamphill’s search for a way to turn the seemingly hopeless case against his client’s accusers is the stuff of virtually fool-proof drama.
To this end, Bacon, continuing on a muscular career rebound, makes the most of his choice opportunity as Young. At first the ultimate victim, emerging from solitary looking like a starved caveman, he slowly reveals himself both to Stamphill and the viewer, and ends up as a figurewho inspires great empathy. Bacon delves deeply into the part to give a very impressive performance.
As his eager-beaver attorney, Slater brings probing energy to the fact-finding sections, but goes over the top too soon and too often during the trial stage, somewhat diluting the power of key scenes. Role is also kept less than fully dimensional by the highly selective and superficial revelation of details about his personal life, including his relationships with his g.f. (Embeth Davidtz) and high-powered brother (Brad Dourif).
Gary Oldman makes a strong showing in his few scenes as the fastidious but sadistic associate warden, and R. Lee Ermey shines as the presiding judge.
Director Marc Rocco (“Where the Day Takes You”) keeps the story’s dramatic intent firmly within his sights, but gets terribly carried away with elaborate tracking and craning shots in an unnecessary effort to play extended sequences in long, sometimes uninterrupted takes. Most scenes retain their effectiveness, but the camera dancing is often distracting, given the mostly cramped settings and limited number of actors on view.
Alcatraz locations and Kirk M. Petruccelli’s outstanding production design give a strong sense of time and place; no film, for instance, has ever before conveyed so vividly the presence of prison employees’ families on the island. Christopher Young’s effective score has a Rossini-esque ring to it.