Bacon and Slater superb in 'Murder in the First'

January 20, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Ah, just when we need it. An anti-Alcatraz movie. I like a film that takes a tough position on an institution that closed in 1963!

The film is "Murder in the First," an account of a trial held in 1942 in which a lawyer argued that his convict client, who had murdered another convict in plain view of 200 inmates by cutting his throat with a spoon (he was ticked, wouldn't you say?), was actually not guilty because . . . Alcatraz made him do it.

You could argue, I suppose, that this was the beginning of the collapse of American civilization. That this was the nascent moment where the delusion of victimization first overwhelmed the spirit of justice, and a guilty man tried to walk by getting people to feel sorry for him and to believe that he was not responsible for his own behavior.

On the other hand, you could just do what I did -- forget all that and enjoy a gripping, well-made film.

Kevin Bacon, usually so glib and enamored of his own buoyant charms, buries his ebullience under layers of feral angst to play one of America's biggest losers, a poor schlemiel named Henri Young. A Depression-bred Iowa farm boy orphaned by bitter circumstance and weighted down by the responsibility of caring for his baby sister under the yoke of impoverishment, he cracked, reached into a till in a general store, and raced out with $5. Hardly the crime of the century, yet this whisper of a felony earned him a long sentence in Leavenworth, the federal pen in Kansas. Why? Because the general store also served as the town post office.

Bad break No. 2 for Henri: The Rock. Opened in 1933 more as a crime-wave publicity stunt than as a serious penal institution, Alcatraz needed run-of-the-mill prisoners to fill out its population of such celebrities as Al Capone, Machine-Gun Kelly, Alvin "Kreepy" Karpis and the surviving Barker Boy. Enter sad-sack Henri, to discover an institution dedicated to a no-escape policy and set to enforce this policy with extraordinary powers of corporal punishment, including torture.

Bad Break No. 3: Doc Barker, Ma's surviving son, talked him into joining an escape attempt. The attempt was betrayed, Doc ended up on a slab and Henri went into the hole for three years, the full power of the state to destroy his soul deployed against him. At least there was an exercise schedule: one half- hour per year.

When he got out after a thousand days of naked solitude in total darkness with rats and spiders, he'd been literally turned insane. Reduced to grubby, wordless troglodyte, he seems even to have lost his language ability.

But his first move made sense: He tracked down the stoolie and gave him a spoonful of spoon. Who could blame him, but who could represent him?

That job fell to a young Harvard-educated public defender named James Stamphill, played here with dead earnestness by the usually flip Christian Slater. Both Slater and especially Bacon are extremely convincing, and they carry the argument of the movie -- that the angels are on the side of the defenseless.

Bacon, his mind shattered by his ordeal in solitary, becomes a version of Lennie in "Of Mice and Men," a harmless, lovable retardate, accepting his own doom and desperate for a whiff of pathetic friendship before sucking the pipe in the gas chamber. (The movie is honest enough to give us a glimpse of his complex and grotesque sexual pathology, something Steinbeck never thought of). Slater, meanwhile is so earnest and humble and liberal and human, he seems like he's flashed back in a time machine from the first Men's Sensitivity Awareness Training in 1977.

At the same time, all evil is invested in the Rock's Associate Warden, Mr. Glenn, played with sanctimonious sociopathology by Gary Oldman, who specializes in such incarnations. It's an old movie idea, dating back at least as far as "Brute Force" in 1947: That the men who run prisons, corrupted by their power, inevitably become more venal and evil than the men who occupy them.

In this one, with white sidewalls, wire-frame glasses and a prissy way of carrying himself, Oldman's not merely the spirit of bureaucratic evil but the actual thing itself. He's the torturer, who likes to swing the truncheon and watch the blood splatter. Obviously he's seen Hume Cronyn do the same act much more piercingly in "Brute Force."

With the movie so front-loaded in terms of virtue, it's not hard to figure out who's going to win, so there's not much available in the suspense department. And again with the virtue loaded on, the movie loses its ability to penetrate or weigh ideas.

The wisdom of prison is never argued, it's simply deplored. Still, the movie is well made in the old movie sense; its evocation of Alcatraz, where much of it was filmed, is particularly dank and oppressive. You feel the claustrophobia and incipient violence of the place, which is a pure empire of force, with no illusions toward rehabilitation. It exists to punish, and punish it does.

The movie is indeed touching and inspirational, but only in its human relationships and its portrait of a largely innocent idiot who became a football for the official forces of law and order. But it yearns to symbolize larger issues and in that ambition fails completely.

"Murder in the First"

Starring Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon and Gary Oldman

Directed by Marc Rocco

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R

***

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