Darkly Powerful ‘90s Legal Thriller Younger Generations Need To Discover

By Shanna Mathews-Mendez | Published

Murder in the First, released in 1995 to public audiences and starring Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon, and Gary Oldman, has somehow missed the radar of millions of people. Bacon gives a brilliantly convincing turn as a prison convict suffering from a psychotic break, and Oldman convinces audiences that he is truly evil. Everyone should see this film for examples of how actors stretch the limits of their talents. 

Kevin Bacon’s Henri Young Goes To Prison Over $5

Based on true events, Murder in the First deals with a convicted felon in the notorious Alcatraz prison in the San Francisco Bay. Bacon plays felon Henri Young, who was sentenced to a federal penitentiary for stealing $5 from a grocery store because said store housed a U.S. Post Office. At the age of 17, his life is essentially over. 

It is only years later, after having been transferred to Alcatraz, trying to escape, being locked in solitary confinement, and murdering his fellow convict after a psychotic break, that Young is convicted of Murder in the first degree. 

The Truth About Young’s Treatment Unfolds

Enter Christian Slater as Henri’s young public defender. All the powers that be assume this case is open and shut — a convict committed murder in full view of prison staff in the cafeteria. 

But Slater’s character, James Stamphill, quickly discovers a sweet, innocent man underneath Young’s hardened exterior. Stamphill realizes that Young, once a poor boy just trying to feed himself and his sister, had been driven insane by the prison warden, played by Gary Oldman, and his three years in absolute solitary confinement. 

Stamphill turns a case of murder in the first degree into a case against Alcatraz and the men responsible for the abhorrent behavior within. 

Based On A Real-Life Murderer

What makes this movie so great isn’t necessarily the fact that it’s based on actual events. The truth is that it is only loosely based on reality. The real-life Henri Young was not so innocent before entering the prison system, having already been a serious bank robber and committing murder. 

No, what makes Murder in the First great is the authentic story of how a prison system can turn a man into a shell of himself, into an animal. As associate prison warden Glenn, Oldman reveals the disgusting levels to which corrupted power can descend. Bacon displays the downward spiral taken by a man who is already down on his luck and is continually hobbled, both literally and metaphorically, by abusers determined to make his life a living hell. 

A Dark And Realistic Look At America’s Prisons

Christian Slater‘s Stamphill narrates the story as it unfolds, and while it is true that he is still a young actor for this role, he is adept at convincing audiences of his passion and overzealous nature. An older, wizened, and embittered public defender may have agreed that the case was open-and-shut, and we would have never heard Young’s story. 

The larger issue at hand is that the American prison system is deeply flawed, and while Alcatraz may be closed now, as the film trumpets quite loudly, hundreds of jails and prisons are still alive and well and destroying the human spirit. And the justice system continues to serve people in these cells and cages like actual animals

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It is this part of the story, I think, that sticks with audiences, particularly because the acting is so well done, even if the direction and production make the film seem a bit low-budget. Murder in the First ended up grossing almost $30 million against a $20 million budget, and it has a 54 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Bacon’s performance especially won him critical acclaim and even a few awards. 

Murder in the First is currently available to stream for free on Tubi.