It's 1938 and Alcatraz is about to go on trial. However, it starts out with a prison murder. Henri Young (Kevin Bacon) has just been subjected to three years in solitary confinement after an escape attempt. During those three years he had a combined hour and a half of exercise time. Needless to say the damp, lightless dungeons below the prison are no place to spend three years of your life. Henri has gone from a petty criminal to a ruthless murderer. He ends up killing the person who snitched on their planned escape. Now Henri is on trial for first degree murder and it seems like an open and shut case.
Novice attorney James Stamphill (Christian Slater) is assigned to defend Young. It seems like a throwaway case. One where Stamphill is simply required to appear with his client in court, wait until a guilty verdict, and then watch as he receives the death penalty in the gas chamber. Only Stamphill isn't content with that. He sniffs out something very wrong with the prison. Young has been tortured and it would seem the harsh treatment has turned him into a killer.
What works well in 'Murder in the First' is the camaraderie between Slater and Bacon. As we know Kevin Bacon can inhabit just about any role. Here he's a jabbering, scared man who has spent three years in a sunless room. He's lost it completely. Bacon slips easily into the role and creates a believable persona.
The movie is basically about how a guy like Young, who has been beaten down by the system, can end up becoming close friends with a guy like Stamphill, who has lived his entire life outside of prison walls. Not knowing exactly what happens on the inside.
Their relationship is the best part of the movie. How Stamphill is able to break through Young's nearly impenetrable exterior which has been forged by years of darkness and loneliness. Stamphill ushers him back into reality slowly. Giving him updates on entertainment and baseball. The movie takes place in the same year Joe DiMaggio went on his historic 56-game hitting streak. Young is more worried about the streak than he is his trial. After learning that Stamphill has no interest in baseball Young exclaims, "I went over every game I'd ever heard on the radio over and over, and you didn't go to one game?" It's easy to forget about the little things in life.
'Murder in the First' is "based on the true story" of Henri Young's trial and the subsequent investigation and closing of Alcatraz. Like all based-on-a-true-story movies, the scenes have been jazzed up for cinematic value and little of the movie is actually based in historical fact (actually most of the movie is fictitious as far as historical reality goes, but we've come to expect that from Hollywood). The courtroom is one of those courtrooms like 'A Few Good Men' where people yell, scream, and object whenever they can. Tears are shed, witnesses are caught in lies, audible gasps are heard from the audience; in short it's everything a movie courtroom should be.
Gary Oldman plays the sadistic assistant warden who does unthinkable things to Young, like slicing through his Achilles with a straight razor. Oldman is perfect for the part, because like Bacon, he simply disappears into his role. Oldman could've played any of the main characters in this movie and he would've done a fantastic job, I have no doubt.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a Warner Bros. catalogue release. It's been packaged in an eco-friendly Blu-ray keepcase and is pressed on a 25GB Blu-ray Disc. It's a region free release.
As with many mid-90s catalogue films I didn't have high expectations for 'Murder in the First' as far as looking stellar on Blu-ray. To my surprise, Warner's 1080p AVC-encoded transfer actually looks quite good. It has its drawbacks, but on the whole this is a decent looking catalogue title.
Shadows are noticeably deep and well delineated. Young spends so much of the movie confined to an almost pitch-black prison, which it was crucial that what little light there was accentuated his face and silhouette. There's a scene where Young is lying on the floor, sweat pouring from his brow. Everything around him is dark, and his face is bathed in a dark blue light seeping in from the door. Beads of sweat are visibly clear. His scraggly facial hair is defined even in the darkness. The blacks surrounding him are dark and inky.
The movie does contain its fair share of soft shots. Also, whenever backlight feeds in from windows it tends to bleed through the edges of faces and bodies, creating a very hazy look. Grain is consistently natural throughout. Colors are vivid whenever we're outside of the prison. There's a great little two-second scene during the opening credits that frames the stark gray prison walls in the same picture as beautiful wildflowers growing below it. The flowers offer rich reds, greens, and purples that are absent for the rest of the movie. It's a nice splash of color in a movie that must reside in a cold, icy palette.
'Murder in the First' has been provided a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that simply isn't all that engaging. It produces clear dialogue for the most part (although there are a few lost lines when Young whispers them). The front-centric mix doesn't offer the immersive surround sound effect that could work well in a movie like this. A cavernous, echoing prison would make for some great surround sound, but with everything being forced from the front speakers it just doesn't have the same pizzazz.
Sound effects lack oomph, low-end frequencies are unheard of. The movie's soundtrack takes over many of the scenes and doesn't so much draw you in as it simply blares its notes at you. There's nothing impressive about this sound mix at all.
Honestly there's nothing about the movie that is actually based in any kind of truth. If you're looking for a historically accurate movie about the demise of Alcatraz this really isn't the movie for you. It is, however, an entertaining film with two engaging leads even though the characters they're playing are completely made up (there was a Henry Young, but he wasn't the character portrayed in the movie at all). Warner has done a good job with the video, but the audio lacks immersion. It may be worth a rental if you haven't seen it yet, but nothing more.