In violation of the federal guidelines that mandate 19-day maximums for solitary confinement, Glenn orders three years of physical torture and isolation in a black dungeon five feet high -- no light, no water.

MURDER IN THE FIRST

A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.


You will not breathe easily after the opening frame of "Murder in the First." This story of the illegal three-year solitary confinement of an Alcatraz inmate carries the same crushing weight as "Schindler's List." A tasteless comparison you may say, when this is a movie about the torture of one convicted criminal, but the crime is universal: the readiness of people who hold power to destroy human beings who are in their control.

Director Marc Rocco wraps the "how can it happen here?" question in irony by zooming his camera across the glorious San Francisco waterscape to one of man's finest engineering achievements: the Golden Gate Bridge. The small rock in the middle is Alcatraz. Opened in 1934 as the ultimate escape-proof prison for the likes of Al Capone, Alcatraz couldn't find enough criminals of the first rank and began to fill its cells with smaller catch.

One of these unfortunates was Henri Young (Kevin Bacon), who landed in Alcatraz after stealing $5 from a food store to feed his young sister. Young's second mistake was that he escaped from the inescapable fortress, bringing public humiliation to the sadistic associate warden, Milton Glenn (Gary Oldman).

In violation of the federal guidelines that mandate 19-day maximums for solitary confinement, Glenn orders three years of physical torture and isolation in a black dungeon five feet high -- no light, no water. The broken, twisted man who emerges three years later immediately murders fellow inmate Rufus McCain, the informer who betrayed him.

James Stamphill (Christian Slater), the inexperienced lawyer assigned to Young's case, succeeds in putting Alcatraz on trial in the press and in the courtroom with a defense that insists the prison created the murderer. While screenwriter Dan Gordon has fictionalized Young's background, he sticks carefully to the facts of the trial that brought the permanent shutdown of the infamous prison.

Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater make a convincing emotional connection between the victim and his defender, with Bacon particularly impressive in a very difficult role. Gary Oldman is hideously right as the sadist.

Christopher Young has written the score with great sensitivity. After the harrowing opening scenes, Young shifts suddenly to a fanciful musical introduction to lawyer Stamphill that lets us breathe again. Resisting any temptation to drive the story forward with overwrought music, he lets much of it unfold in silence and then underscores its power with music that is restrained and sorrowful.

The final chapter in this grim tale of American justice unfolds on a prison boat that roars across San Francisco Bay with the American flag flying over the travesty taking place on the deck below. We Americans are wedded to the conceit that physical torture is a foreign beast. This movie is a sharp reminder that the "jewel of our penal system" operated for almost thirty years with just such sanctioned brutality.


Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 498
Studio: Warner Bros.
Rating: R 2h2m


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