I was never interested in the sorts of things most young children, especially girls, would find remotely appealing. Case in point: I was about nine, spending a Sunday afternoon with my grandma . We were watching the Discovery Channel and a special came on, called “Public Enemies on The Rock,” a documentary about the history of Alcatraz and its infamous menagerie of inmates. I sat, riveted, listening to former guards and inmates tell stories of Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and daring escape attempts. I had never heard of these men or the prison before, but something about them and Alcatraz itself fascinated me. Over the next year, I watched more documentaries and read about a dozen books on the subject. Most of these reiterated information I already knew, so I quickly lost interest.
At a local video store recently, I stumbled upon this title. The tagline on the box proclaimed: “Based on the true story of the trial that brought down Alcatraz.” I ran through my mental file of Alcatraz lore. Nothing I had previously read or seen had mentioned anything about the prison being involved in any kind of lawsuit.
Murder in the First is based on the trial of Henri Young. He was part of a group who tried to break out of Alcatraz in 1938, the famous escape attempt that resulted in the death of “Doc” Barker. Rufus McCain, one of the prisoners involved, tipped the guards off about the escape attempt and told them that Henri was the mastermind. Henri’s punishment was a stay in a basement dungeon that was used for solitary confinement when D Block got too crowded. At the time, federal law stated that a prisoner could be sentenced to solitary confinement for a maximum of 19 days; Henri was kept in the dungeon for 3 straight years. The guards beat him regularly and the assistant warden cut his Achilles tendons with a straight razor, leaving Henri partially crippled for life.
After 3 years, the assistant warden decided that Henri had learned his lesson. He was allowed to shower, taken to the prison barber for a shave and a haircut, and then escorted to the prison cafeteria. While Henri was eating, one of the other inmates told him that Rufus McCain was the reason Henri had been sent to the dungeon. Somewhere during his long stay in solitary, Henri had totally lost his mind, so he ran across the cafeteria and stabbed McCain in the neck with a spoon. McCain died instantly and Henri was charged with first-degree murder. The rest of the movie deals with the trial.
This movie features (what was for the mid-1990s) an A-list cast: Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, and Christian Slater. R. Lee Ermey, who played the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket, plays the judge. Kyra Sedgwick from that crappy TV show The Closer makes sort of a cameo appearance as a court reporter who must be tragically underpaid. (Watch the movie and you’ll understand what I mean).
Christian Slater plays James Stamphill, a Harvard Law graduate who now works for the public defender in San Francisco. James is fresh out of law school and frustrated because he hasn’t gotten to go to court yet. His boss assigns him the Henri Young case; he figures James won’t win, but at least he’ll get some experience as a trial attorney.
I’ve seen a few other Christian Slater movies. In most of them, the characters he played were very unlikeable, so I had no sympathy for them. Whatever happened to them, they deserved it, end of story. James Stamphill is not one of those characters. James doesn’t defend Henri because he’ll get a fat paycheck. He doesn’t defend Henri because the cute legal secretary down the hall says she’ll sleep with him after he tries his first case, whether he wins or loses. James defends Henri because he is horrified that three years of “rehabilitation” turned a petty criminal into a murdering nutcase and wants to make sure the guards are not allowed to treat any other prisoners in such an inhumane fashion.
Henri was played by Kevin Bacon. He seemed “into” this role, so I found it easy to react to what was happening to his character. In a scene where he cries on the stand and says he’d rather be executed than go back to Alcatraz because of what the guards did to him, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. When Henri did strange or creepy things, I started to think maybe Kevin Bacon wasn’t acting.
I was startled when I did some research online and learned that Kevin Bacon wasn’t even considered for a Best Actor Oscar. I mean, look at Anthony Hopkins and Jack Nicholson. They both received Best Actor for playing psychopathic killers. Maybe the role of Henri Young didn’t count because Henri wasn’t crazy to start with?
Looking at the facts of the case from a 21st-century perspective, I am surprised there was even a trial at all. During the 1930s and 1940s, inmates who killed other inmates were usually handled internally by the warden of the prison where the crime took place. A couple of weeks in solitary and several years added to the murderer’s sentence was the usual punishment. The life of a fellow inmate just wasn’t worth the hassle and expense of a public trial; those usually happened only if an inmate killed a guard. I suppose an exception was made in the Henri Young case because the murder took place on Alcatraz, which was federal property.
This movie isn’t for everyone. It’s not something you watch to be entertained. You watch it maybe because you enjoy the historical aspect of it or you find the legal aspect interesting or you just like movies with human drama and emotion. Even though it doesn’t end all that happily, you can still turn the DVD off feeling satisfied. I highly recommend it.