THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Tuesday, January 24, 1995 TAG: 9501240031 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E7 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Movie Review SOURCE: BY MAL VINCENT MOVIE CRITIC LENGTH: Medium: 80 lines
KEVIN BACON turns in a riveting, showy performance that, for moments, makes the melodramatic ``Murder in the First'' well worth the trip. It is one of those outings that is a career-making (or career-changing) display.
On the other hand, ``Murder in the First,'' directed with a wildly restless camera by Marc Rocco, has serious credibility problems. While it purports to be ``the case that brought down Alcatraz,'' even the most rudimentary research suggests that it is but the latest in Hollywood's seemingly endless campaign to prove that every person in prison is actually innocent.
According to the script written by Dan Gordon, Henri Young never had a chance. To get food for his starving family, he robbed a grocery store for $5 and ended up in Alcatraz. The robbery became a federal offense because the store also housed a post office. After a failed escape attempt, he was locked in solitary confinement for three years. The harrowing, opening moments of the film picture a naked and tormented Young (Bacon), beaten and humiliated in a tiny cell.
After being released from his dungeon, Young promptly murders the convict he believes ratted on him.
The 1941 murder trial becomes the center of the story as a young, idealistic lawyer, played by Christian Slater, seeks to save the convict by putting Alcatraz itself on trial. He claims, passionately and with a good deal of believability, that the inhuman conditions drove Young to commit the murder. Bacon is almost unrecognizable with a shaved head, a hobbled walk and a scarred face. Women - played by Kyra Sedgewick (Bacon's real-life wife) and Embeth Davidz (the leading lady of ``Schindler's List'') - only serve to emphasize his pitiable impotence.
The film's best moments come when Bacon and Slater talk about baseball and other mundane subjects. Here are two young men, about the same age, who come from widely different backgrounds. Under other circumstances, their positions might easily be shifted. Young's desperate need for a friend is touching. The part that fate plays in life is compellingly dramatized.
In 1995, this film fights an uphill battle against a population that is tired of being threatened by criminals and is urging more, not less, prisons. At the same time, we see the success of legal defenses that excuse crimes because of social conditions (as in the Menendez brothers' case).
For a film that makes so much of being ``truthful,'' ``Murder in the First'' doesn't hold up. Henri Young actually robbed a bank, not a grocery store. The lawyer, played with such bland niceness by Slater, is a composite of several lawyers. As far as the case ``bringing down'' Alcatraz, it is more likely that the mounting expenses of operating the island prison was the real reason for closing it.
Filming on Alcatraz, with the lights of San Francisco in the background, lends authenticity and mood to the drama, but it is largely disfigured by the director's insistence on keeping his camera moving at all times. The two central characters can't have a simple cell conversation without the camera whirling about them, as if something momentuous was about to happen.
See this only for Bacon's compelling performance. Factual or not, he creates a moving portrait of a young man who never had a chance. ILLUSTRATION: WARNER BROS. photo
Kevin Bacon, left, plays accused Alcatraz convict Henri Young and
Christian Slater is his attorney in ``Murder in the First.''
``Murder in the First''
Cast: Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Embeth Davidz,
Brad Dourif, William H. Macy, Kyra Sedgewick
Director: Marc Rocco
Screenplay: Dan Gordon
Music: Christopher Young
MPAA rating: R (sadistic violence, language, sexual references)
Mal's rating: 3 stars
Locations: Greenbrier and Movies 10 in Chesapeake; Circle 4 and
Main Gate in Norfolk; Lynnhaven Mall and Surf-N-Sand in Virginia