Murder in the First (1995)
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In showing another side of Alcatraz the movie breaks away from typical escaped based Alcatraz films. While "Escape from Alcatraz" may still be the top movie in this topic area, "Murder in the First" provides a new twist that involves a different type of drama. Kevin Bacon was surely jilted for not being nominated here!
how this film escaped the attention of Oscar and Globe voters is one of the great Hollywood mysteries of our time...if Bacon ain't Oscar meat here, i don't know what is...an absolutely brilliant performance in the kind of role the voters usually jump all over at ballot time...ya really gotta wonder...
conspiracy theories aside, this is one helluva flick...besides our pal Kevin, there's outstanding work from Christian Slater, Gary Oldman, and everybody's favorite drill sergeant, Lee Ermey...Moe Greene's kid, Marc Rocco, gets a great period feeling economically...solid work by the wardrobe and make-up units...this film deserved a much better fate at the box office and at awards season in '96...if you haven't seen this one yet, you're missing a real gem...
The script writing and direction are calculated to be moving, and they succeed. Every actor in the film, every detail of the art direction, every camera angle plays on your heart and sense of moral indignation. To do so successfully, as I think this movie does, is the definition and purpose of art.
Kevin Bacon shows the most range in his film that I have ever seen from him. His physical performance was very demanding, his character work even finer. His chemistry with each actor in every scene is both bold and subtle, raw and complex. He reminds me of DeNiro's performance in the "Cape Fear" remake.
Christian Slater's character provides the viewer's point of view in the film, and he plays with great emotion and passion, and yet with a touch of reserve and detachment. I am strongly reminded of Kevin Costner's performance in "The Untouchables." Needless to say, Gary Oldman is a master at his craft, and always amazing to watch. Every character Oldman plays is memorable, and the antithesis of type-casting. His portrayal of the warden in this film is a brilliant balance of a socially acceptable monster.
This movie has received a lot of criticism for portraying historical facts inaccurately, and for taking sides in a political debate. I would remind the open-minded viewer that "To Kill A Mockingbird" also took great liberties with the facts of the historic court case on which it was based (there were six accused rapists, not one; the person on whom Atticus Finch was based was in reality the judge and not the defense attorney, etc.) and emphatically took sides in the even more hotly contested political debate over racial discrimination in America. Both films were based on real life, but neither claimed to be a documentary. Whether you resent historical tampering and political statements for dramatic impact is something only you can decide for yourself. Personally, I support both "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "Murder in the First" as films whose merits outweigh their flaws.
In short, this movie is worthy of your time, and will reward you, whether you want entertainment thrills, a good popcorn movie, a morally inspiring story or the appreciation of a well-crafted piece of work. It falls a little short of "The Shawshank Redemption," but not far. Despite what this or any other review says, start this movie without any preconceived notions, and just go along for the ride. I think you will be surprised, happy and satisfied.
Everything about it, to say nothing of the theme itself. The lighting, the cryptic cutting every time the point was made without fail, the lingering closeups when humanity was the point.
If you're interested in another view of the Henri Young case, visit the Bureau of Prisons web site (I can't give the URL because that would violate the comments posting guidelines) and search for "Murder in the First".
In any film based on a true event, some license must be granted to the screenwriter. There's no way they can know exactly what was said in every conversation, so representative dialogue has to be written. Some minor characters will probably be composites. These things are understandable. But when the film blatantly distorts the main characters and the main events of the story, I can't help but think that the point the film is making is probably built on shaky ground. "Murder in the First" may be entertaining in some people's opinion, but no one should come away from this film thinking they have seen history portrayed accurately.
How I missed this movie 17 years ago I'll never know.
This is by far one of the best movies I've ever seen! Not only was Kevin Bacon FANTASTIC, Christian Slater GREAT!!! I've never been a big Gary Oldman fan he was also EXCELLENT.
I was riveted to my chair throughout the entire movie; wish I'd seen it years ago when it first came out.
I grew up in the Bay Area and the scenery indoors and out were spot on! They truly did a great job on this movie.
Its because it has powerful characters and powerful actors that viewers snap to one of the six viewing modes they have and read it as a "character-driven" drama. Others were upset that the story deviates from real events rather drastically.
My own view is that this is one of the very few films we have that features a building as a character. This is a traditional trial form, where conflicting and synthesized realities are understood to exist by ordinary viewers. Usually this form is used to support battling stories, or versions of reality. Powerful characters can exist ("Mockingbird," "Few Good Men"), but they are there only as representatives of conflicting realities.
What makes this so interesting is that it is the building itself that is on trial. This is exploited by Rocco to an extraordinary extent. Fincher tried to take this notion to the next level in "Panic Room," but got fired. Too bad, because it is a cinematic thrill of sorts to see someone try to present a space as a character.
Sure, it is unusual and many viewers thought the man was going crazy with his odd camera angels, his swoops, his unusual blocking. But I ask you to watch this and see how the prison is introduced to us, and the supposed core, its antebellum dungeons. Then see the contrasting "open" space of the courtroom where it is to be tried. Slater's opening statement is an amazing exploration of space with one multi-encircling movement.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
One problem I have with this movie is that I was disappointed in how much it was manipulated from the true story it was based on. If I had not been so moved by movie, though, I would not have cared enough to look for facts about the actual ordeal. Henri Young is portrayed in the film very differently than the person he apparently actually was. I do not doubt the overall message, though. That message is that torture and cruelty will and do change people for the very worst. It shows you that a person can commit a crime, be convicted, and then become worse-off than they were to begin with. It reminds people that the goal of prisons in America are to "rehabilitate," but that is almost never what actually happens. It shows that abuses of power are as sinister as the actions of convicted felons.
I would still recommend this movie, by all means. Its story is warped from the facts and Henri Young is romanticized quite a lot, but that does not really change the overall message it is trying to convey.
A number of our friends have actually never heard of this movie. But, when one of them subsequently watched it, she remarked how good a movie it is.
This film, along with "Awakenings", both need to be given so much more notoriety. I can watch either of them numerous times, and never be bored.
Marc Rocco's film is loosely based on Henri Young and his time at Alcatraz. After Young is transferred to the prison with his only crime stealing five dollars to feed his sister, he is inhumanely treated by the associate warden thus leading to a murder. But a young defense lawyer comes to his aid to lessen his charge against him and to prove to the world what a terrible place Alcatraz is.
The acting is magnificent to say the least. Kevin Bacon delivers one of his best performances of his career and he shows a wide acting range playing Henri who lacks trust after spending three years in complete darkness. Christian Slater does mighty fine as the lawyer and Gary Oldman, as usual, delivers another impressive performance.
Overall, this film is very interesting and it's an emotionally powerful movie. Some of the scenes really moved me especially the one when we find out some hard, cold facts involving the head warden in the courtroom scene. Like most others, I was disappointed when I learned many facts were muddled but still made audience believe the events in the film were true. That being said, I really liked this movie and I find it to be criminally underrated. I rate this film 9/10.
The period is set in the late 1930's. Petty thief Henri Young, played by Kevin Bacon, was sent to Alcatraz previously from another prison to make up the numbers as the infamous Rock was lacking incorrigibles at the time and the numbers needed justification. He and a small party of other prisoners attempt a daring escape which inevitably fails. One of the escapees, Rufus McCain cuts a deal with the Associate Warden Glenn (Gary Oldman) and is rewarded by being sent back to the general prison population. Henri Young is not so lucky and is sent to the dungeons of Alcatraz, commonly referred to as 'The Hole', where he spends a total of 3 years and 2 months in complete solitude, with no light, clothing, toilet or other basic provisions. We then witness Young's gradual descent into insanity as he is cut off from human contact and suffers merciless torture and beatings at the hands of the Warden and the guards there.
Young emerges a mere shell of his former self, and almost immediately kills another inmate in the prison canteen. The rest of the movie is focused on the subsequent court case whereby Henri is defended by a young and inexperienced, albeit enthusiastic lawyer James Stamphill, played by Christian Slater. Stamphill attempts to put Alcatraz and it's wardens on trial and expose the conditions there.
The movie is a solid one and is gripping enough to keep you watching. Christian Slater's narration leads us through the movie and events. Kevin Bacon is excellent and very convincing as the prisoner making us believe every word and scene. He plays Henri Young as a pathetic, ruined man who is totally at the mercy of Alcatraz.
Gary Oldman is great in a supporting role here, playing a sadistic warden almost in a monstrous bureaucratic way. He is given free reign to do what he does in the film and of course Oldman is at his best when playing borderline psychos with underlying anger issues just waiting to boil up. I only wish his character could have been given a little more screen time.
Christian Slater is good as the lawyer and is suited for this part. I am often undecided in my opinion of Christian Slater when I watch him, but I feel that in this movie he does what is needed and plays Stamphill as a decent guy who is fundamentally a humanist.
Some scenes are brutal and hard to watch, especially the torture scenes in the dungeons where Bacons's character suffers. Some viewers may actually consider this a movie that requires only the one watch, as it kind of leaves a dark impression on the mind. But this is how it was intended to be made. It's not pretending to be anything else. This is undoubtedly a very moving and powerful film that won't disappoint. If you like strong and solid performances then look no further.
Very few movies come across that are that gripping.Moves you up to your seat. And then there is always this tension and drama, anxiety about what's next to come.
The fact that this is based on a true life story makes it a more powerful saga. A saga that smells courage, conviction and commitment. How many movies like this exist. This movies falls under the ranks of Shaw Shank redemption.. Pappion, The Holocaust, Its a wonderful life.. et all..
really a bone of a movie. I have watched it so many times that each and every scene is tattooed on my brain. I can even close my eyes and see the trail unfold.
If you haven't watched it - you are not just missing an American Classic but also you are missing examples and stories to tell your kids - what happened once upon a west.. Cheers Olga Lednichenko
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