Murder in the First
Director: Marc Rocco
Rating: Must see
Solitary confinement at Alcatraz Federal Prison was called "the hole." It was a five foot high stone dungeon with no light, no sound, no air, no furnishings of any kind. The only water was seawater that seeped down the walls, feeding the mold. An hour in the hole was torture. Men were kept there for weeks and months, naked, and unattended. They were fed every few days through a slot in the door.
Henry Young was kept there for more than three years, starting in 1938. The worst thing Henry ever did outside of Alcatraz was to steal five dollars— to feed his younger sister. The worst thing he did inside was to try to get out— until the day he was released from the hole. Then he killed a man he believed was responsible for his solitary torture.
This true story is the basis for Murder in the First. It's the second film in recent months about the inhumanity of prisons. The other was Frank Darabont's Shawshank Redemption, a powerful story of prison's effect on an innocent man.
Christian Slater, playing lawyer James Stamphill, is billed as the star of Murder in the First, but I beg to differ. Kevin Bacon's face is blazed in my memory as the tragic Henry Young. I suppose Slater has more minutes on screen than does Bacon, but this movie is in every way the story of Henry Young, and Bacon's riveting performance brings the tale to life. Slater's part is secondary. Besides, Bacon was much better than Slater.
This is a disturbing movie. We see a young man destroyed by a barbarous prison system, in our own land, in this century. There is no quarter in which prison apologists can hide in this story. Young's crime was petty, if it was even a crime. The story takes place in a time when criminologists told us that prisons rehabilitated people. Yet Henry Young's rehabilitation, in what was supposed to be our most modern prison, turned a scared, hungry kid into a killer, then annihilated him.
From time to time, evidence still surfaces of similar barbarity in today's penal institutions. It is almost a foregone conclusion that a person who enters a prison once will be back, probably convicted of worse crimes.
Shawshank and Murder are stories that need to be told, and they need to be told by careful filmmakers who scrupulously avoid exaggeration and misrepresentation. Otherwise some who insist that inhuman treatment of prisoners is somehow justified or necessary can dismiss these statements with, "It's only a movie."
Early in this picture, director Marc Rocco makes a mistake that weakens his credibility. He re-creates newsreel footage to tell us about the attempted breakout that landed Young in solitary confinement. Rocco's version of Movietone News gives us far more detailed coverage than newsreels ever provided of any but the biggest stories. Then he fills the newsreel screen with closeup shots of bloody faces of inmates killed in the attempt.
I'm old enough to have seen a fair amount of newsreel footage first hand, and I never saw anything like that. It's a journalistic technique of the eighties and nineties, not of the thirties. The only way I'd accept Rocco's version is if he showed us restored footage of actual newsreels, complete with the titles. I'm sure no such films exist—not with the blood and detail of coverage he used in his re-creations.
Why do I care? Because this kind of artistic license lets us doubt everything a director tells us. If he lied about the newsreels, did he lie about the brutality? His story is too important to allow such negligence. If he means to make a difference with his film, and I believe he does, he has to be squeaky clean with his literary and historic honesty.
Ah, maybe I'm too picky. Murder in the First is a vital and compelling movie. It makes us look our human viciousness square in the face. I just don't want us to have an excuse to blink.
© 1996, J. C. Adamson