Murder in the First is directed by Marc Rocco and written by Dan Gordon. It stars Kevin Bacon, Christian Slater, Gary Oldman, Embeth Davidtz, William H. Macy and R. Lee Ermey. Music is scored by Christopher Young and cinematography by Fred Murphy.
Slater stars as James Stamphill, an idealistic young attorney who is tasked with defending Alcatraz prisoner Henri Young (Bacon) who clearly murdered a fellow inmate. But what transpires is that Henri had just spent over three years in solitary confinement for attempting to escape the prison. It's evident, also, that Henri has been the subject of systematic violence perpetrated by sadistic Warden Milton Glenn (Oldman). Stamphill risks his career, and Henri's life, to put Alcatraz and the people in charge on trial.
Inspired by a true story, viewers should note that this is mostly a fictitious film. The truths are readily available on line so I will not waste space divulging the facts here. Suffice to say that Murder in the First is to be judged solely as a work of fiction. But what a film we get, a heart yanking, emotionally upsetting picture showcasing the evil that men do, filling out the narrative with alienation, cruelty, corruption and revenge driven murder. The dehumanising effects of prison abuse has never been so touchingly portrayed as it is here by Bacon, it's a haunting and vivid portrayal of a man pushed to the limits of sanity, a guy living in the dark recess of hell, struggling with every breath to come out into the light. An astonishing performance that once again in Bacon's career was ignored by his Academy peers.
Whilst high on emotional wallop, and some scenes really are tough to watch, the film falls shy of brilliance on account of standard fare for the courtroom sequences. Nothing bad but there's a dramatic thrust missing, and it's not Slater's fault, who is good at being sincere and humanist, the script doesn't provide enough thunder in the trial, in fact often it's too low key for its own good. We get a great snippet of what we are missing as Oldman (another great turn as a angry bastard) loses his cool, but more stomping, shouting and legal soul picking was needed.
Tech credits are very good. Rocco has a good sense of claustrophobic atmosphere, the scenes in the bowels of the prison perfectly portray Young's disorientation, the dank, dark and wet surroundings in keeping with the prisoner's state of mind. The director also favours an impressive roving camera technique that serves the story well. He also slots in a couple of noirish reflection scenes, one sees Glenn lose his cool while shaving and smash the mirror, the result is a distorted reflection, a showing of a fractured psyche. The other sees a prison visit between Stamphill and Young separated by a piece of glass, their respective reflections at first coming off as grotesque, but then slowly blending into one, a sign that maybe lawyer and prisoner will eventually sing from the same song sheet? It's a film that has found its way on to some neo-noir lists, visually and thematically as regards Bacon's character, that is fair enough.
Elsewhere. Murphy's photography is a key component to the tonal flow of the story, while Young's score is a real treat, criminally forgotten it relies on strings and choir for emotive means and succeeds exceptionally well. In support Macy and Davidtz do well with thinly written parts, but Ermey is a joy as the blunderbuss judge presiding over the trial. Nice to see Brad Dourif in the mix as well, even if we ultimately hanker for more of this great character actor. In a year that saw high end emotional drama released with Dead Man Walking and Leaving Las Vegas, Murder in the First sadly had some of its thunder stolen. Which coupled with the fact many refused to accept it fictionalising the Henri Young/Alcatraz story, saw it slip away until the World went internet crazy and it got rediscovered. It deserves to be found still some more so seek it out film fans. 8/10