The physical realism of contemporary movies certainly hasn’t made prison films any easier to watch. In the old days, we knew the jailhouse food was bad because the inmates banged their cups on the table. Now we know it’s bad because the camera moves in on a close-up of insect-infested grub. Yum! Murder in the First, a pressure-cooker prison melodrama, is big on this sort of grimy verisimilitude, and it’s about as pleasurable as a stint in solitary. In 1938, Henri Young (Kevin Bacon), an ignorant young Southerner serving a robbery sentence at Alcatraz, is caught trying to escape. As punishment, he is tossed into solitary confinement — ”the dungeon” — and kept there for days, weeks, months. Finally he emerges, filthy and deranged, having spent three entire years in a thin black vault with no toilet. Is it any wonder that his first act is to go crazy in the mess hall and murder the prisoner who ratted on him? Henri is a killer now, but the movie’s inarguable point is that it’s the fortress of Alcatraz, with its medieval system of discipline, that turned him into one.
Watching Murder in the First, which is loosely based on Henri Young’s actual story, it’s hard to shake the feeling that screenwriter Dan Gordon and director Marc Rocco are teaching us a lesson in humanity none of us needs to learn. When Henri’s case goes to court, with James Stamphill (Christian Slater), a righteous young attorney, assigned to defend him, there isn’t a whisper of suspense in the trial proceedings. Henri, it’s clear, was monstrously abused. The callous warden (Stefan Gierasch) and his sadistic assistant (Gary Oldman, the master of hammy minimalism) were obviously responsible. The attorney must do what’s right and take on the System — that is, the full force of corrupt power behind Alcatraz.
Slater is his usual likable, lightweight self, which is to say that his performance is hopelessly out of period. High moral indignation simply isn’t his strong suit. Bacon, on the other hand, has some moving moments as the emotionally catatonic Henri. In the film’s most wrenching scene, Stamphill brings Henri, who is a virgin, a prostitute in prison (she’s played by Bacon’s wife, Kyra Sedgwick), and he tearfully finds himself unable to perform. Still, too often you glimpse Bacon’s sleek, active mind working beneath the surface of this mush-mouthed rube. He evokes our sympathy without necessarily making Henri an interesting character. Trying to pump up the action, Rocco keeps his camera moving with gratuitously showy fervor. It hovers, it circles, it cranes — it does everything but settle in on the actors’ faces. And when Henri’s moment in court finally arrives, Murder in the First denies us the one thing we most want to hear: an account of how his ordeal felt from the inside out. The film’s true drama — what it does to a person to live in hell — remains locked up in Henri’s head. C-