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Ten Films About Death Row

Few film genres can match the sober atmosphere and gnawing tension of crime movies about death row, as the stakes are so high and the clock is always ticking. As Volta adds Werner Herzog’s gripping examination of a notorious Texan crime Into The Abyss to the programme, we take a look at ten feature films and documentaries that have tackled the question: is it right for the state to kill those who have killed?

Angels With Dirty Faces

Michael Curtiz’ 1938 crime classic wasn’t the first American film to tackle the issue of state-sponsored execution, but it had the greatest impact. James Cagney played Rocky Sullivan, a tough-as-boots hoodlum whose childhood friend is a priest (played by Pat O’Brien). When hard-man Rocky is condemned to death, O’Brien’s Father Jerry asks him to pretend to be terrified of his fate, to discourage the other inmates. As Rocky is eventually dragged, kicking and screaming, to the electric chair, we don’t know whether his courage has finally crumbled or he is merely doing his oldest pal one last favour. Either way, the scene is immensely powerful.

I Want To Live!

Susan Hayward won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1959 for her portrayal of a woman on Death Row in California who protests her innocence even as she awaits execution. Robert Wise’s heavily dramatised film noir told the story of the real-life drug addict and prostitute Barbara Graham, who became involved in a murder case and ended up being convicted of the crime. An eloquent and heartfelt argument for the abolition of the death penalty, the film was topped and tailed by fictional sequences which, the filmmakers said, proved Graham’s innocence even though she had confessed to the crime and subsequent case reviews found no reason to doubt her conviction.

Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

Director Werner Herzog’s gripping 2012 documentary examines the events surrounding the conviction of two young men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, for the murder of three people in Texas over the theft of a red sports car. Rather than attempt to prove the convicted men’s guilt or innocence, Into The Abyss focuses on the crime, its perpetrators and the people left behind in the aftermath. In a series of chilling interviews, Herzog talks with a smiling Perry as he awaits execution on Death Row and a seemingly oblivious Burkett, whose death sentence was reduced to a life term in prison.

In Cold Blood

Writer Truman Capote’s factual book In Cold Blood was adapted by Richard Brooks for this black and white 1967 film based on the encounters between the author and convicted murderer Perry Smith, played by Robert Blake, on death row in Kansas State Prison. Brook’s film omits Capote’s character but details the mass murder of a farming family, the police investigation that led to the convictions and the culprit’s wait on death row before being hanged. In 2005, Bennett Miller’s biopic Capote (starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman) focused on the difficult writing of the original book, as did Douglas McGrath’s Infamous (with Toby Jones), released the following year.

The Thin Blue Line

Documentarian Errol Morris’ 1988 film told the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to die on Death Row in Texas for a murder he did not commit. Through re-enactments of the crime, police photographs, news archive and exhaustive series of interviews, Morris’ investigation leads to the conclusion that Adams could not have committed the crime. The condemned man’s case was reviewed and he was released from prison a year after the film’s release. The film’s title comes from a lawyer’s comment in court that the police are the “thin blue line” that separates society from anarchy.

The Life of David Gale

Kevin Spacey plays a college professor found guilty of murder and awaiting execution on Death Row in Alan Parker’s complex 2003 drama The Life of David Gale. A respected death penalty opponent, Spacey’s titular Gale is convicted of the rape and murder of a fellow activist. Three days before his scheduled execution in Texas (it’s almost always in Texas…), Gale agrees to an exclusive interview with Kate Winslet’s grasping journalist with ends in a startling revelation. Although Parker’s film was not a commercial success (and in fact, he hasn’t directed since), the soundtrack to the film composed by his sons Alex and Jake has proved exceptionally popular with other filmmakers, with tracks being used in trailers for dozens of films, including The Artist, The Iron Lady, Munich, Milk and World Trade Centre.

Monster’s Ball

One of the very few Death Row films told from the point of view of the prison guards responsible for carrying out death sentences, director Marc Foster’s 2001 drama Monster’s Ball stars Billy Bob Thornton as a racist corrections official who meets and falls in love with the wife of a convicted man who is about to be put to death. Complex and compelling, Halle Berry won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role as the widow, the first for an African-American actress in a leading role.

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

In 1994, British documentary-maker Nick Broomfield’s Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer analysed the sensation surrounding America’s first convicted female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, a former prostitute who was sentenced to death for murdering several of her customers over the course of a couple of years. In 2002, Broomfield returned to Florida for a series of sad, chilling interviews with Wuornos as she awaited execution by the electric chair on Death Row, explicitly asking the question if it is right to execute someone of diminished mental capacity. The following year, Charlize Theron won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’ drama Monster.

The Green Mile

Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont continued his collaboration with writer Stephen King with this adaptation of his fantasy serial-novel The Green Mile in 1999. Tom Hanks plays a guard on Death Row in a Louisiana prison in 1935 who is responsible for the execution of John Coffey, an African-American man found guilty of murdering two young girls. As the story unfolds in flashback, we discover that Coffey has seemingly magical powers and is entirely innocent of the crime, although there is no way to stop his inevitable execution.

Dead Man Walking

Writer and director Tim Robbins adapted the non-fiction book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean for this absorbing 1995 anti-capital punishment drama, which won Susan Sarandon an Academy Award for Best Actress. Sean Penn plays a man convicted of murdering a young couple, and sentenced to death, being comforted by Sarandon’s nun in the final days and weeks of his life. The film was very much a family affair for Robbins, who cast his then-partner Sarandon in the leading role and found parts for his father, Gil (as a bishop), mother Mary (a government official), sister Adele (a nurse), and sons Jack Henry and Miles (as young boys in a church) In addition, Robbins’ brother David composed the score.