Warner Brothers has been making tough, compelling prison melodramas on and off since 1932. This is hardly the golden age of identifiable studio style, of course, but you can bet your last nickel that the stingy coots who once ran the family business like a work farm would approve of their descendants' latest trip to the Big House--even though economic reality now dictates that partners the Wolper Organization and Le Studio Canal+ tag along for the ride.
Murder in the First is hard, spare and grim, as befits a prison movie carrying the Warners logo. But even though it is set in a classic prison-movie period--1938 to 1941--and in the most infamous American prison--Alcatraz--it is driven by a contemporary, super-realistic sensibility that Spencer Tracy could scarcely have imagined while serving Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing. From the moment we first see the gray chop on the bay and "The Rock" looming ahead, we know we're headed straight to hell.
The admirable cast--Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon and Gary Oldman--contributes to the movie's icy bath of brutality and injustice. But it is the astonishing young director, one Marc Rocco, age thirty, who really submerges himself. In Murder, there's not an ounce of the unearned sentimentality or synthetic uplift that compromise jailhouse films like The Shawshank Redemption--but there's so much authentic feeling that you leave the theater exhausted. I believe this is a great prison movie--and a great courtroom drama in the bargain.
Rocco, who is the son of heavy-lidded screen tough guy Alex Rocco, first got noticed three years ago for an L.A. street movie about homeless teenagers, Where the Day Takes You. This time, he spent nine months researching the real-life case of Henri Young, an Alcatraz inmate who, like some more romantic movie characters, tried to escape from the Rock. Young was quickly recaptured in 1938. Then, in the name of "rehabilitation," he was stripped naked and thrown into a solitary black hole--for three years.
Reduced to a cowering, half-catatonic animal, Henri Young struck out at the first thing he saw when he finally got out--the snitch who betrayed him. His murder trial was soon transformed into a trial of Alcatraz itself, and of the entire Department of Justice.
The old Warner Brothers muckrakers of the Thirties--the people who stirred prison reforms with I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang--had neither the freedom nor, probably, the stomach for the violence and the human degradation Rocco shows us here. The gifted Oldman, who portrays a sadistic assistant warden named Glenn, takes such bland pleasure in crucifying his victim that you can't help thinking of the Nazis who ran the death camps. Just about the same time in history, after all, they were kissing their wives and children goodbye in the morning, then going off to work as monsters.
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The "banality of evil" suffuses Murder in the First, but in transcending all the familiar prison-movie cliches, young Rocco also gives us the story of a strange friendship. The withdrawn, shell-shocked convict (Bacon), a dirt-poor farmboy sent to the world's toughest prison for stealing $5 to feed his starving sister, and his green, Harvard-educated public defender (Slater) may as well come from different planets, but the film eventually reinvents them as soulmates--two young men joined by fate in a terrible test of character.
Lurking off in the shadows are J. Edgar Hoover, the morale of a nation at war and a penal system sanitized, without thought, by desensitized jailers and naive mass media. Bacon, who starved twenty-five pounds off his frame for this, and Slater, who's done mostly teen trash until now, both come into their own with this film; both deserve good, solid parts from now on. And Rocco, who spent an entire weekend in one of Alcatraz's infamous and long disused "dungeons" just to get the idea, shows that he's a director to be reckoned with. His film is brutal in the joint, exceptionally smart in the courtroom and everywhere haunted by bars, cages and restraints--along with the inescapable feeling that there is no escape. If I were in charge, cinematographer Fred Murphy would win an Oscar next year for his scary, surreal work, and production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli has conjured up a vision of hell that makes your skin crawl.
Artistic license? Sure. Oldman's odious Warden Glenn is a "composite" character; Bacon's young lawyer, "James Stamphill," is assembled from Henri Young's two-man defense team, and the movie's woman attorney (Embeth Davidtz) in a man's world never existed at all. But Young's personal drama, the uncommon bravery exhibited by a petty thief the state reduced to subhumanity, unfolded just like this.
That is what really matters. And the emaciated Bacon's portrait of a man struggling to regain his humanity is so powerful that you might see him in your nightmares. In short: Do the time.