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‘Murder In the First’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 20, 1995

"Murder in the First" is a painfully predictable, earnestly acted indictment of the American justice system of the late '30s. Though based on a true story, this grueling drama is peopled by characters that have been fictionalized into big house cliches. There's an unjustly imprisoned youth (Kevin Bacon), an unspeakably sadistic warden (Gary Oldman), an idealistic public defender (Christian Slater) and even a crusty old judge (F. Lee Ermy).

Based on newspaper articles, newsreel footage and court files, the film opens with a jaunty Movietone report from Alcatraz, where prison guards have foiled an escape attempt. The purported leader, Henri Young (Bacon), is thrown bleeding and naked into an unheated stone dungeon without a window, toilet, sink or bed. Seawater seeps into the moldy, coffinlike room, where he remains for more than three years.

The warden allows Henri to leave his solitary cell for only one half-hour of exercise per year. And in a particularly harrowing scene, he taunts and tortures Henri with a sharp and gleaming straight razor. With only spiders and rats for company, Henri becomes increasingly withdrawn and is virtually insane when removed from his cell. Within hours, Henri murders the man he believes responsible for his ordeal.

Two hundred inmates and several guards witness the murder, and the catatonic Henri seems destined for the gas chamber. Then his case falls into the hands of James Stamphill (Slater). A composite of the two real-life lawyers who represented Henri, James turns against his fiancee, his firm and his own family to save his client and expose the horrors of Alcatraz. The friendship that develops between the privileged Harvard graduate and the scarred, crippled prisoner comes as a relief, but ultimately it is more pathetic than uplifting.

The real Henri Young was a bank robber, who nonetheless was in no way deserving of the cruel and unusual punishment that was meted out to him. The film's fictional Henri is more sympathetic: An orphan, he stole $5 from a grocery to feed his little sister. Because the store also housed the post office, the crime was tried in a federal court and poor Henri was sent to Alcatraz.

Director Marc Rocco, whose first film was 1992's "Where the Day Takes You," tries to enliven the jailhouse scenes with artsy photographic gimmickry that detracts from the performances of Slater and Bacon. The two leads are acting their little tails off; it's not their fault that they are playing men so impossibly good that Albert Schweitzer suffers by comparison.

"Murder in the First " is rated R for nudity, profanity, sexual situations and violence.

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