[box cover]

Murder in the First

In 1941, Alcatraz inmate Henri Young (Kevin Bacon) inexplicably attacks another prisoner in the dining area, stabbing him with a spoon handle and killing him. His case falls upon inexperienced public defender James Stamphill (Christian Slater), who is told by all around him that the trial is a guaranteed loser and that he should only worry about covering his own ass in the courtroom if he wants his career to continue. But when Stamphill finds his defendant in a catatonic state, he starts to investigate the prison and learns that Young had been held in solitary confinement for three years, reducing his mental state to that of an enraged imbecile. Stamphill knows he has a simple diminished-capacity case on his hands — his only problem is that he will have to go up against Alcatraz, the Justice Department, and the U.S. Government to save his client from the gas chamber. Disturbing, hypnotic, and at times brilliant, Murder in the First is a wonderful amalgam of prison movies and courtroom flicks, bolstered by a spellbinding, suspenseful plot and very good performances all around. Slater — who has always struggled to find a niché in Hollywood — is effective as the young PD on his first case, but even with his fine work, he is entirely outclassed by Bacon, a choice supporting actor who gets one of his few lead roles here. While some might dismiss his performance at first as that of a drooling, spastic idiot, Henri's rehabilitation is a fascinating process as his memories and desires gradually overcome the cruelty that has robbed him of his humanity. Gary Oldman, as a sadistic associate warden and Henri's chief nemesis, has a supporting role that is brief but blood-chilling. Director Marc Rocco helms the film with an ambitious style, and even if some of his long-take stylistics are distracting, the compositions and art direction are impressive. The only crime here is that Warner streeted this disc with no extras — not even a trailer. Give it a spin anyway. Also starring R. Lee Ermy, William H. Macy, Embeth Davidtz, Brad Dourif, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Kyra Sedgwick. Good transfer, Dolby 2.0 Surround. Snap-case.
—JJB



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