I was not familiar with Murder in the First before receiving a screener to review. The film's claim that it is based on a true story is dubious, but the legal drama has a great cast - Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon, Gary Goldman, Brad Dourif, William H. Macy and R. Lee Ermey - and is a compelling account of the brutality of Alcatraz prison. Bacon plays a young prisoner sent to the bowels of Alcatraz for years following an escape attempt, and Slater is a young public defender assigned to defend the man after he kills a fellow inmate. Murder in the First is a solid legal and courtroom drama, with excellent performances by Bacon and Slater.
Orphan Henri Young (Bacon) is sent to Alcatraz after stealing $5.00 from a grocery store to feed his younger sister. After Young tries to escape, he is locked in the dungeon-like solitary confinement cells in the prison's basement. Another attempted escapee, Rufus McCain (David Michael Sterling), pins the crime on Young. After years underground, Young is psychotic and battered, but kills McCain with a spoon in the prison cafeteria. Public defender James Stamphill (Slater) gets the case because his boss hates him, and Young cowers in the corner of a holding cell during their first meeting. Stamphill discovers that Young was locked in solitary for three years despite state regulations forbidding more than a few weeks in such conditions. The prison's warden, Milton Glenn (Oldman), concealed Young's treatment from state authorities for years.
Helping Young is an uphill battle for Stamphill. Everyone knows Young killed a man, but Stamphill bases Young's defense on the severe psychological trauma inflicted upon Young by his deplorable treatment at Alcatraz. Stamphill's bold courtroom demeanor infuriates his boss, who threatens to take him off the case, but Stamphill eventually gets Young to open up and talk about baseball and girls. Murder in the First is certainly fictitious, but Alcatraz, which closed as a prison in 1963, was not a pleasant place to do time. The film is set in the final decade of the prison's use, when one's psychological state was not yet relevant in a courtroom. Stamphill must convince a cranky judge (Ermey) that Young's mental state is important to his defense, which infuriates seasoned District Attorney William McNeil (Macy).
Murder in the First is effective as both a legal and historical drama. The courtroom scenes are intense and nicely paced, though both attorneys barely avoid being held in contempt for their salacious conduct. The background on Alcatraz is similarly interesting, even if it strays from the truth. Stamphill fights to view the solitary cells at Alcatraz, and has to use his girlfriend (Embeth Davidtz) to distract his cautious tour guide. The period setting is nicely realized, and everything from the costumes to the San Francisco trolleys to the prison cells appears authentic.
The acting is excellent across the board. Bacon gives an incredible performance as the mentally broken Young, and Slater reminds the audience that he is a capable actor. Ermey brings his typical drill-sergeant bark to the courtroom, and Oldman is unhinged as the sadistic warden. With performances like these, I'm surprised Murder in the First is not more popular. The film ends with a powerful courtroom showdown, but resists a pat, feel-good conclusion. Murder in the First resonates and is an excellent drama.
Murder in the First is another strong catalogue effort from Warner Brothers, and the 1.77:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer looks mostly excellent. Detail and texture are strong, and the film retains a nice layer of grain. Black levels are excellent, which is fortunate because much of the film occurs in the dark cells of Alcatraz. Detail is still strong when cloaked in shadow, and black crush is minimal. The period setting tends to push things toward sepia, but there are quite a few bold splashes of color throughout. There's a bit of softness and some minor shimmering, but the print is in good shape.
The soundtrack is a bit disappointing. For whatever reason, the main mix is only a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. This does not scuttle the experience since the film is largely dialogue driven, but a more immersive mix would have been nice. Dialogue is always clear and there's some minor ambience, but the lack of surround support means things sound a bit flat. At least dialogue, effects and score are well balanced. A Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital track is also available, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
Warner Brothers has not exactly been stocking their catalogue titles with newly created material, but Murder in the First at least gets one new featurette: Kevin Bacon: Back to Alcatraz (12:30/HD), in which the actor discusses his career and work on the film. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (1:59/HD).
With so many weak legal thrillers floating around, Murder in the First is a nice surprise. Kevin Bacon is exceptional as a mentally broken Alcatraz prisoner on trial for murder after years of psychological abuse. Christian Slater is the young public defender assigned to the case, and the excellent supporting cast includes Gary Oldman and R. Lee Ermey. Slater condemns the harsh reality of life at Alcatraz and attempts to introduce then-unsupported evidence about Bacon's mental state to aid in his defense. Murder in the First is both an excellent legal and historical drama. Highly Recommended.