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‘Let Him Have It’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 24, 1992

Bentley said to Craig, "Let him have it Chris."

They still don't know today just what he meant by this

Craig fired the pistol, but was too young to swing

So the police took Bentley and the very next thing

Let him dangle

-- Elvis Costello, from the album "Spike"

ON THE HEELS of songwriter Costello's tabloid mythicization of executed 19-year-old Derek Bentley comes the British film "Let Him Have It." Unlike the song, however, the movie doesn't stand on its own. Its impact depends entirely on the true story behind it.

In 1952, Bentley and 16-year-old accomplice Chris Craig were cornered mid-robbery on a warehouse rooftop by a police officer. When Craig brandished his gun, Bentley purportedly yelled, "Let him have it, Chris." Apparently taking this as an order to shoot, Craig killed the policeman. Despite Bentley's claim he was telling Craig to relinquish the weapon, the 19-year-old was hanged for murder. Craig, the actual killer, served a mere 10 years in jail.

This miscarriage of justice has yet to be rectified. The parents, still importuning Parliament for a posthumous acquittal, died in the 1960s. Bentley's sister, Iris Bentley (who served as a consultant for this movie) is still alive and continues the fight. Last August, a few weeks after the movie's release in England, the Home Secretary agreed to reopen the case.

The movie, which recounts the Bentley-Craig events faithfully, is a far less poignant affair. Given its sensational subject, it's practically innocuous. Director Peter Medak makes a transparent attempt to reproduce the success of his "The Krays," another mythicization -- the latter about the infamous gangster brothers who terrorized postwar London. But in "Let Him Have It," Medak and screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade seem tired and uninspired. The movie functions barely above docudrama, a mediocre TV-film effort.

We first meet Bentley (Chris Eccleston) as a kid, stuck under a pile of rubble during a Luftwaffe bombing raid. Life seems to sit on him like bricks from then on. He's given a low IQ rating. He's also an epileptic. Tender and impressionable, he lives under the protective wing of his family, led by father Tom Courtenay. It isn't long before local punk Craig (an appropriately impish Paul Reynolds) spots Bentley for a sidekick. With little character judgment, and lonely besides, Bentley is easy prey.

The ensuing episodes meander towards the inevitable climax. There's none of the fatalistic propulsion that made "The Krays" so memorable. Bentley, who is befriended by Craig's older, hoodish brother (Mark McGann), can't read his food ration book very well. Craig idolizes his older brother and collects an arsenal of guns. As in "The Krays," Bentley's family is left in the dark, wondering where Derek is getting all this fine tobacco and snazzy clothing. Craig is finally squeezed out of the gang by his family. But in a desperate attempt to bridge the estrangement, Bentley sets up the robbery that will lead to his death.

As soon as Bentley's convicted, the movie picks up. The Bentley home is deluged with supportive mail. Petitions are signed. Courtenay and the family get to work, appealing to Parliament and the press. Suddenly, the movie is charged by this valiant show of strength. "No one will hurt you, son," Courtenay promises stoically. "I won't let 'em."

The statement is doubly touching. It's a promise Courtenay can't keep; and this eleventh-hour development has come too late to save the movie.

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