I remember watching Murder in the First back in 1995 when it first came out. I was a big fan of legal dramas, and still am (though they’re definitely not as rampant as they were in the ’90s), and I remember enjoying Murder in the First quite a bit at the time. Having not seen the film in a decade or so, my fond memories remained as I placed the Blu-ray disc into the player and prepared to watch the film once again; however, those memories quickly vanished and I realized that Murder in the First wasn’t making as strong a case for itself this time around.
The key to a great legal drama is a lot like a good heist movie. In order for a heist movie to be strong and memorable you need to meet the characters, learn what the plan is, and watch them try and figure out a way to actually make the heist happen. Of course, the heist itself is fun, but it’s the planning and the obstacles that truly make up the meat and potatoes of the story and development. The same thing needs to happen in a legal drama in order to make it compelling; though, instead of planning a heist and figuring out how to pull it off, it’s watching the (in most cases) underdog prosecutor or defender trying to figure out how to win their case, which culminates in an epic courtroom showdown in the final act.
Unfortunately, Murder in the First doesn’t really go this route and instead it tries to be two things at once: a legal drama and a prison drama. The main problem is, by splitting the focus it takes away from both aspects and leaves us with a decent, but ultimately lacking film.
The story is based loosely on true events that helped bring down Alcatraz, though if you read into the history at all you’ll find that the liberties taken by writer Dan Gordon were hefty, as he really pushes to make prisoner Henri Young (Kevin Bacon) a sympathetic, all but wrongly convicted man – something the real Henri Young was anything but. Of course, without Young being a character the audience feels sorry for, then the entire film would be a harder sell (rooting for a bad guy in order to take down other bad guys doesn’t really work in this case) so the changes were warranted, it was just disappointing to learn that the actual events went down a lot differently in this case.
In the film, Henri Young has been locked up in solitary confinement for over three years straight, after attempting to escape Alcatraz with a couple of other inmates. The big issue here is that inmates aren’t supposed to be locked up in these “dungeons” for more than 19 days at a time, and Young did over 1000 days, while being abused and tormented by both guards and the assistant warden of the prison, Milton Glenn (Gary Oldman). Because of this he is driven partially insane and only hours after he’s finally put back into general population, he murders the man who ratted out those who tried to escape to the guards.
This brings in James Stamphill (Christian Slater), who’s a fresh new attorney that’s looking for his first big case. His boss gives him the Young case because it’s an open and shut case (hundreds of witnesses saw Young kill the man in cold blood) and he can’t screw it up. This is all a solid premise to start things off; however, the film quickly turns into a back and forth talking game between Young and Stamphill, with the trial taking a backseat.
Well, that’s not entirely true, as Stamphill constantly pushes Young to talk to him about his mistreatment in the prison, especially after he makes a bold claim during his opening statement that he’s putting Alcatraz on trial for the murder, and that they were the ones who made Young into a weapon. But Young doesn’t want to talk about the case, instead wanting to speak about baseball and the likes, finally happy to have a friend of some sort that he can bond with. But Stamphill only wants to talk about the case, and proving Young is not guilty.
The reason I say the trial takes a backseat is because instead of focusing on how Stamphill begins to pull things together, they instead give him a few “Eureka!” moments, which help things fall into place for his defense, and don’t really ever make him work for it. There’s also a side story with Stamphill’s colleague and girlfriend, Mary McCasslin (Embeth Davidtz), that flounders, and comes to an abrupt and vague conclusion in the epilogue. It’s so abrupt, and lacks any true meaning aside from the fact that Stamphill was busy with the case (which you think a fellow lawyer would understand) that it seems almost pointless to have included it.
While the story is pretty standard and hits all the right “good guy vs. bad guy” notes, the performances help make it worth watching. Well, while Slater and Oldman both do a great job with what they’re given (when is Oldman not great, especially as the villain?), Murder in the First is really a one man show, and that man is Kevin Bacon. Bacon’s portrayal of Young, however skewed it may have been written as, is absolutely amazing. He truly gives a fantastic performance that makes you realize just how diverse an actor the man really is, and how well he can play pretty much anything. The empathy you feel towards the character is all in Bacon’s delivery, and his work here really elevates everyone around him.
Murder in the First is an average courtroom drama that comes from a decade when a hefty amount of exceptional legal dramas were released that fall before this one on the recommended list. Still, sometimes an actor can help take a story to another level, and that’s the case here. It’s easy to see how physically and mentally demanding this role was for Bacon, and while the film itself isn’t as strong as his performance, it’s all the better – and worth checking out – because of it.
The Blu-ray transfer of the film is a good one, though there are certain scenes that are washed out and don’t hold up. Still, the higher quality scenes make up most of the movie, with some especially strong blacks and cooler hues helping add to scenes within the prison walls. The audio quality comes through well, with great sound effects within the courtroom, as well as inside the prison.
Kevin Bacon: Back to Alcatraz – This is the lone special feature on the disc, though it is an interesting one. It’s simply Kevin Bacon talking about his experience working on the film, why it appealed to him, how he prepared for the role and his career in general. It runs at 12 minutes and 30 seconds, and makes you want to sit down with Bacon and just talk about his work, as his passion and knowledge really shines through.
Murder in the First isn’t a courtroom drama that stands up against other legal greats; however, it does have a hugely sympathetic leading character, as well as themes and messages that people will no doubt find inspiring, which alone will make the film worth watching to many – and I don’t blame them. The performance of Kevin Bacon truly helps elevate this film to another level, and is the main (and likely only) reason this film remains memorable after one watches it.
Warner Home Video presents Murder in the First. Directed by: Marc Rocco. Written by: Dan Gordon. Starring: Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Christian Slater, William H. Macy. Running time: 122 minutes. Rating: R. Released: July 17, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.