The charge of “murder in the first degree” has long since lapsed from the vocabulary of criminal law.
You still encounter the expression, usually streamlined to “murder in the first” - nobody ever asks, “The first what?” - and now it’s flashing from the marquees as the title of a striking new movie.
Marc Rocco’s “Murder in the First” is a justice-be-done suspense drama based on a World War II-era case in which the corrupt administration of Alcatraz, America’s super-prison, inadvertently betrayed its own brutal tactics.
As superbly played by Kevin Bacon, born loser Henri Young is an unlikely agent of change, a starving orphan kid who snatched $5 from a hick-town grocery store and wound up with a federal felony rap against him because the joint also served as a post office.
As played by Gary Oldman, Alcatraz’s resident warden is a bornagain Inquisition torturer, the kind of humorless creep who enjoys beating on people who can’t fight back. His recapture of Young after a failed escape allows a match made in Young’s own private hell.
And as played by Christian Slater, novice lawyer James Stamphill is just the kind of self-assured, earnest young Harvard-grad hotshot who’d give anything to risk his career on a cause that everyone else wants dismissed as lost.
The point is that Young, newly returned to “normal” prison life after years of torture and solitary confinement, has slain a fellow inmate - the dirty rat who had squealed on the jailbreak - in front of witnesses. Stamphill, appointed as Young’s public defender, is expected to submit Young for conviction and execution with no complications.
But it is such lost-cause crusaders who make for good political ruckuses and entertaining fiction. Director Rocco and screenwriter Dan Gordon make almost too much of lawyer Stamphill’s zealous campaign to accuse the prison system of transforming Young into a killer, but the film is dead on the money in portraying the sad friendship that develops between the striving Harvard lawyer and his dirt-poor, uneducated but intuitively smart client.
Second-billed Kevin Bacon walks away with the picture, establishing Henri Young as a guy who, though approaching 30, remains locked in the moment of boyhood when he lost his freedom. Slater’s naturally arrogant bearing serves him well in the lawyer role, for he manages a convincing air of vulnerability just beneath the smug surface.
In support, Gary Oldman makes a suitably hateful authority figure, and Embeth Davidtz (of “Schindler’s List”) registers strongly as a young attorney who proves to care too much how Stamphill handles this make-orbreak case.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story “Murder in the First” is playing at East Sprague, Newport and Showboat cinemas. Directed by Marc Rocco and starring Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman and Embeth Davidtz. Rated R
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.