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Murder in the First

A movie directed by Marc Rocco

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Has there been a World Series yet?

  • May 8, 2000
Pros: Bacon and Slater, outstanding

Cons: Alcatraz and the penal system

In 1935 Henri Young (Kevin Bacon), hungry and out of work, steals $5.00 from a store. Tried and convicted Mr. Young is sent to Alcatraz for five years. Mr. Young is 18 years old. Unfortunately, this is based on a true story and becomes the story of the life of Henri Young.

Realizing the frustration of living in prison, Henri Young attempts a clever escape along with several other prisoners. Alcatraz being what it is, they were captured. Young was thrown in the ‘hole' and there he remains for three years. Left to the guises of the guards and the warden (Gary Oldman), who for some unknown reason do not like Henri - perhaps it is his cockiness - he is beaten and tortured during his entire stay in the hole. Often days or weeks go by with no contact with the outside world, even the guards. Left to his own mind and devises, Henri emerges three years later totally insane and promptly kills the snitch that ratted the escape attempt.

Now up for charges for first degree murder, his court appointed attorney, James Stamphill (Christian Slater) makes the first of many horrendous visits to Alcatraz. Facing Henri for the first time Stamphill finds a deranged, crippled man who he assumes is a much older man. In truth, Henri is just a few years older than Stamphill but because of his treatment during incarceration he is no longer able to walk upright, his legs and back are deformed, his speech patterns are stilted and somewhat retarded. His mental capacity is that of a child. His only real memories pertain to baseball and Babe Ruth. Stamphill, freshly out of law school and never trying a case of this caliber - frankly, may be his first case, does not have the knowledge needed to make the connection to Henri.

Realizing the only way he can make a connection and thereby find a way to represent Henri, Stamphill bones up on baseball, crawls into the cage with Henri, and just starts talking to him. It takes many visits before Henri starts opening up and the story he tells sends Stamphill over the edge. Having no real experience, Stamphill does the only thing he can - get Henri to plead innocent and in turn charges the state of California and the penal system, especially Alcatraz, on trial instead. Stamphill charges them with turning Henri into the maniac he has become.

In a bit of comedic event, Stamphill brings a prostitute to the prison, disguised as his assistant, to offer Henri something he never had the opportunity to enjoy. Henri of course is shamed and unable to complete the ‘mission' due to the fact he has been in the prison system so long. Nevertheless, this attempt, as well as the baseball, form a bond between Henri and Stamphill that continues until Henri's death.

During a remarkable trial, Stamphill is able to prove to the judge and jury that indeed Henri has been left to the maniacal devises of Oldman and the guards and brings the penal system down, effecting the eventual close of Alcatraz. Henri must of course return to Alcatraz until all his release papers are completed. There is a very touching scene showing him getting on the boat after the trial, pleading with Stamphill to not send him back. He is now a free man and cannot imagine returning to this hell to await his paperwork. Henri never leaves Alcatraz. He mysteriously dies awaiting his release.

Brilliant performances by Kevin Bacon, Christian Slater and Gary Oldman. It is both repulsive and riveting to observe Bacon in this role. His mannerism and characterization are outstanding. Christian Slater was the perfect choice as the young inexperienced attorney. His fresh-faced innocence brings credence to the part and his passion and diligence investigating the corruption of the penal system and Alcatraz are remarkable. Oldman, whose roles are always diverse, portrays a truly evil and unforgiving person in the drama.

An excellent film although sometimes hard to view since you realize that these things are true. Regardless it draws you into the action and suspense and really has you pulling for the underdog in this story. Fortunately, due to the outcome of this saga, the evil that was Alcatraz and its' unholy guardians was brought to the ground.


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Susi Dawson ()
Ranked #24
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About this movie


A well-shot drama about an ambitious young public defender who takes on the case of a man whose cruel treatment at Alcatraz turned him into a killer. In the process of trying the case, the two develop a bond and ultimately bring down Alcatraz once and for all.
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Cast: R. Lee Ermey
Director: Marc Rocco
Release Date: 1994
MPAA Rating: R
DVD Release Date: Warner Home Video (June 22, 1999)
Runtime: 2hr 3min
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