Murder in the First

Based on a true story." those are loaded words. Look at the flak hurled at Quiz Show for fiddling with a time frame. By that standard the undeniably affecting Murder in the First, which takes major factual liberties, is bound to get bashed. Here's the true part: Henri Young — Kevin Bacon in a blistering performance — hit prison at 17 for stealing five bucks from a post office. In 1938, Henri was thrown into the dungeons of Alcatraz, where he spent more than three years naked and cringing in a dark, cold, solitary 6-foot-by-9-foot cell until the warden returned him to the main prison. Then, in a crowded mess hall, the dazed and addled Henri killed the man he believed had wronged him. Henri's trial for first-degree murder exposed the sadistic practices and helped close Alcatraz forever.

These incidents are all set forth in the film, vigorously directed by Marc Rocco (Where the Day Takes You) from a hellfire script by Dan Gordon. The tale is not sweetened in the telling — watching Henri writhe in agony in his cell is meant to make you squirm — but some of the facts are. Henri was defended by several lawyers. In the film there is only James Stamphill, an inexperienced public defender willing to take on the system. Christian Slater plays him with fierce intelligence. The trouble is, James doesn't exist. He's a composite character.

Do it. The composite character has a girlfriend, attorney Mary McClassin, who is played by Embeth Davidtz (the Jewish maid in Schindler's List). Mary is not a composite character; she has been totally invented to goose up our rooting interest in young James. Then there is Warden Milton Glenn, a button-down sadist who cuddles his family at home and crushes inmates at work. Though Gary Oldman plays him with chilling subtlety, you have seen this monster — he's another composite character — in every prison picture since sound came in.

Should the filmmakers be nailed for going Hollywood? Yes and no. What studio is going to risk millions on a big, brown, dreary movie about a moldy case? Add romance and uplift and you get your movie made. Say this for Rocco, who should work on his tendency to hammer a point: He exposes a real injustice. It is impossible to leave Murder in the First without being moved. Bacon dropped 25 pounds and wore disfiguring makeup to capture Henri's scarred look, but his achievement in the role comes in letting us see the emotional scars left by Henri's ordeal. More than likely you will forgive the compromises — the story of Henri Young needed to be told.

From The Archives Issue 701: February 9, 1995