After being released from solitary confinement in the sub-level of Alcatraz State Penitentiary, Henry Young killed one Rufus McCain, a man with whom he had attempted to escape unsuccessful three years earlier.
The lawyer assigned to defend Young’s open-and-shut case realized that while Young was guilty of the crime – about 200 inmates witnessed the lethal stabbing to McCain’s neck with a spoon – the motivation stemmed from being dumped into isolation for three years over the 19-day maximum limit, and regular beatings by guards as well as the evil warden.
As more details of prison life emerged during the trial, the jury was sufficiently moved and Young was convicted on the lesser charge manslaughter, which did send him back to Alcatraz where he committed suicide, but it marked the beginning of prison reform at the rock, as well as the warden being reprimanded for his brutal management style.
Marc Rocco’s direction is a mix of fluid modernism – smooth camera movements and highly dramatic montages – and old fashioned storytelling, and he manages to evoke outrage, heavy sadness, and grand tragedy from viewers through a strong script and an excellent cast of mainly character actors (many part of Rocco’s stock company, seen in his 1992 runaway youth drama Where the Day Takes You).
Christopher Young’s rich orchestral score delves into a bit of high-pitched drama akin to Ennio Morricone’s Casualties of War (the similarities are obvious), and the main theme – with heavy strings and female chorus – elevate Henry Young’s pathetic life to a martyr for prison reform, as well as a symbol of what immense moral goodness can be had when brutality is brought to the light.
As a pure drama, Murder hits all the right marks and it’s hard not to be moved by the eventual friendship between Young and his young defense attorney, but as an accurate chronicle of the actual case, Dan Gordon’s script contains a great deal of manipulative fiction.
Much in the way In the Name of the Father (1993) bent facts to create a reactive drama of a young defense team struggling to right wrongs and hold the abusers accountable, Gordon tweaked aspects of Young’s life to make his character more sympathetic for audiences, but one wonders why the skill that obviously created such compelling fiction couldn’t have been used to transform a real-life and unlikeable character into a similarly unlikely hero of prison reform.
The real Young was convicted of bank robbery, of brutalizing a hostage, and murder prior to arriving at Alcatraz, and after being convicted of manslaughter for the 1940 death of McCain, he survived his extended stay at Alcatraz and served further time at the Washington State Penitentiary, after which he was released on parole in 1972, and disappeared.
The frustration with Murder is that it’s a skillful little film with strong statements against corruption, torture, and keeping dark immoral secrets while many suffer – there was a peculiar ratio of inmates sent to mental institutions after their stay at Alcatraz - but the filmmakers likely felt Young’s background had to be simplified because audiences may not have supported a common thug.
That’s unfortunate, because it’s clear from Kevin Bacon’s performance of a mentally and physically abused man that the real Henry Young would’ve earned audience respect.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan