Monday, October 25, 2010

Considering the Media and Alcatraz in Murder in the First

Dateline news segments of today are usually depressing, packed with crime, murder, and economic distress. However, the opening scene of Murder in the First is a rather upbeat Dateline report of a foiled escape attempt from Alcatraz. The guards are congratulated on their excellence in apprehending the escapees instead of being reprimanded for allowing the prisoners to get out in the first place. They are even quoted as being jubilant and showing off their battle scars, all with smiles on their faces. The news reports seem to be disjointed with the rest of the movie. Its peppy tone is very different from the gruesome treatment of the prisoners. This account of success on the guards part is a stark contrast to the following scene and the rest of the movie.

Henry Young stole $5 and tried to escape from Alcatraz, leading him to solitary confinement in the dungeons of the prison, with little human contact and hardly any sight of the outside world. The conditions were horrendous and inhumane. He was also abused in his time there. Young was whipped, clubbed, cut and shackled. His treatment left him both physically and mentally incapacitated. These vile acts committed against Young were very difficult to watch as he screamed in pain and anguish. It is disturbing to think that is the manner in which prisoners of the time were treated. Being isolated and tormented for years caused a significant amount of damage to Young. The film examines how Alcatraz’s inhumane treatment affect their prisoner’s psyches. It is because of his treatment that Young murders Russ McCain, almost immediately after he is released from the dungeon.

The short clips of news reports stand out during the film because they are incongruent with the rest of the movie. They carry a different tone than the subject matter. A reason behind their placement could be to demonstrate for the audience just how little accurate knowledge was presented to the general public at time about the prison. Especially, what is what really like on the island. They saw happy faces of guards and the warden instead of brutally beaten prisoners.

There is no mention of the treatment of the prisoners in the news reports. The dirty details are omitted to make the story have a happy ending. Shielding the public from the actual occurrences on the island. It isn’t until the Alcatraz is put on trial that the prison’s gruesome details get examined. No attention is paid to the to treatment of these prisoners. Much of the general population thinks they are horrible monsters. Little do they know spots in the prison are filled with some petty criminals for budgetary reasons.



  1. I agree that the short clips stand out from the rest of the film. However, these might be some other ideas to consider. They may be significant in two different ways. 1) It may give the audience a sense of time. 2) It may also give the audience from this time period of the "accomplishments" at Alcatraz by omitting the negative aspects of the island.

    For the purposes of the film and the audience watching it, it may serve as a timeline for the film. As the general audience watches the film, they see it in the current advancements of technology. Most people may agree that they would rather see more modern films instead of old films. So these short news segments give the audience of the most modern advances provided during the days that Alcatraz served as a prison.

    The media controls what information is leaked to its audience. It can target its audience to feel one way by relieving certain information or omitting information. With regards to the short clips in the film, it focuses only on the "accomplishments" of the guards. It is also cheery to reinforce this idea. They do this to make their audience feel as if the island was actually functioning well rather than being inhumane or lacking proper man-power. In comparison, if they focused on the idea that prisoners were able to escape, then this would suggest that Alcatraz was not doing its job of incarcerating the most dangerous criminals of their time.

  2. I agree with everything you have said. However, I think another valid point to look it as why news about Alcatraz is so limited. This is because Alcatraz really was impenetrable. Not only was it nearly impossible for prisoners to escape, but it was impermeable from the outside. News of events on the island leaked out months or years after they had already occurred. This is why Alcatraz provided the perfect location for this penal experiment.
    If news of its inhumane policies of dehumanizing the prisoners had leaked out, public outrage would have forced authorities to change Alcatraz's policies, reducing its effectiveness. The trial represented the first time that Alcatraz itself was being examined and represented a significant moment in its ominous history.