"My dad's gonna kill me."
Following the success of his stylish gangster picture The Krays, director Peter Medak turned his attention to another black mark in modern British history, the execution of 19 year-old Derek Bentley in 1953 for a murder that he indisputably did not commit. The real killer (Derek's 16 year-old friend Christopher Craig) was underage and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, but the Crown, desperate for a scapegoat to quell public fears, turned its attention to his legally culpable "accomplice" Derek, despite the fact that Derek was actually in police custody at the time of the shooting. The film, Let Him Have It, takes its title from the sentence that Derek allegedly shouted out to Christopher to encourage him to do the deed. The full story, however, was much more complicated.
A decade earlier, during the air raid bombings of London in World War II, young Derek sustained a head injury that left him epileptic and intellectually challenged, though still highly functional. As a teenager he was sent to reform school after being goaded by some friends into vandalizing property with them; the friends all got away but Derek was left holding the bag, thus establishing a criminal record that would be used against him later. Just wanting to live a quiet life without any trouble after his release, he nonetheless soon found himself in the company of Chris Craig, a young local bully, functionally illiterate but very charismatic, who watched too many American gangster movies and play-acted all the roles with the collection of real guns he'd compiled. In those days, guns were practically toys, and kids traded them like candy in school classrooms. Although an obvious bad influence, Chris was also a true friend to Derek when no one else thought much of him, and a bond was forged.
One night, with plans to commit a petty break-in and robbery, the two boys were spotted and cornered by police. Derek was taken into custody quickly and put up no resistance, but Chris, his head swimming with thoughts of all the anti-heroes in the movies he'd watched, began braying expletives like an idiot and firing random shots off into the air to show his bravado. When a police officer demanded the gun, Derek uttered the infamous phrase in question, "Let him have it, Chris", at which point Chris fired at the officer and hit him in the arm. Derek was well restrained and in custody at the time, but further random shots were fired by Chris, one of which unintentionally hit another officer in the head and killed him instantly.
Now, here's where things get ambiguous. Was Derek's cry of "Let him have it, Chris" an instruction to shoot, or was he telling his friend to hand over the gun? It's astounding that a difference of semantic interpretation like this could lead to someone's execution, but that is exactly what occurred. Derek was accused of "mentally supporting" the behavior of his friend, even though he was himself not a mentally capable individual, and was railroaded through the trial, convicted of the murder, and sentenced to hang. In a situation that quickly grew in Kafka-esque absurdity, the appeals courts refused to hear the case and a petition to Parliament was stalled because they felt they could not make a decision until after the sentence had been fully carried out. Public outrage over this obvious miscarriage of justice eventually led (decades later) to an exoneration of Bentley's name and the abolishment of capital punishment in the UK.
The film is a terrific period recreation with a very good performance from Christopher Eccleston as Derek, and director Medak keeps the drama restrained to avoid hysteria or hyperbole. This is not a rousing "statement" movie like the similarly-themed In the Name of the Father. Though obviously the film has a position and takes a stance, it is a cool and rational examination of the curious ironies that could create such a bizarre situation with such serious consequences, and a melancholy reminder that the same thing could easily happen again.
Let Him Have It makes its DVD debut in Region 1 courtesy of Image Entertainment.
Presented at an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 with anamorphic enhancement, the video transfer looks good but not great. The picture is just a bit too dark and has poor shadow detail. Certain colors such as red lipstick are deep and vivid, while flesh tones are rather pallid throughout, though this may be a purposeful stylistic choice. Sense of detail is good in close-ups but soft in medium and long shots. There are practically no noticeable edge enhancement artifacts and digital compression quality is fine overall, with the exception of a couple of noisy shots of the sky. Speckles on the source materials are occasionally visible, getting a little bit worse towards the end of the movie.
The movie's soundtrack is available in either Dolby Surround 2.0 or a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Both are similar in quality, only subtly enveloping without much aggressive use of the surround channels. Dialogue is clear and sound effects are crisp, but certain sounds such as gunshots that ought to have more kick don't extend very deeply. The track doesn't have much bass or dynamic range. To be sure, this is a drama, not an action movie, but sound quality is just fair throughout.
No subtitles have been provided.
The DVD has simple menus and only a limited number of bonus features. Of main interest is the audio commentary from director Peter Medak, who speaks with a thick Hungarian accent but is understandable (he sounds a lot like Werner Herzog, actually). Medak discusses the background of the story as well as his directorial approach to working with actors. It's a subdued talk, but usually interesting nonetheless.
Beyond that, we get only a 4:3 trailer in poor condition and the ability to watch the movie with an isolated score audio option. The latter has become very rare on DVDs these days due to rights issues (the distributors of soundtrack albums don't want people to be able to listen to isolated musical scores without buying their CDs), so that was a rather surprising inclusion. I just wish the Michael Kamen score was more memorable.
No ROM supplements have been included.
A fine piece of drama often overlooked, Let Him Have It finally comes to DVD with decent picture and sound quality and a good commentary track. It's perhaps not the flashiest DVD release on the market, but is definitely worth a recommendation.