There's no doubt that the British legal system really let Derek Bentley have it. They hung him for murder when they knew exactly where he was when the murder was committed: Under arrest.
Bentley, executed at 19 in 1952, was the victim of a bizarre set of circumstances that were moved beyond adjustment by the permanence of capital punishment; these events are the subject of an icily unsentimental film by Peter Medak, at the Charles through tomorrow.
Derek (played beautifully by Christopher Eccleston) had the mind of an 11-year-old boy and the body of a heavyweight boxer. His father (played with agonizing poignancy by the great Tom Courtenay) understands just how vulnerable Derek is to the wrong kind of suggestion and carefully monitors his son's activities. But Derek's size has made him attractive to some young toughs and their combination of peer pressure and adoration drew him, that horrible evening, out of his home and into terrible trouble.
Somehow he found himself on the roof of a candy company in South London with Chris Craig, who was 16 but like so many young men today had a serious attitude problem which he thought a big-bore pistol could help him solve. Alas, they were not alone: the police had joined them.
Chris, his head bloated with images of bravado from American gangster movies, held a policeman at gunpoint. The policeman demanded the gun. Derek yelled, "Let him have it." That's the crux of the case: did Derek mean, "Shoot him" or "Let him have the gun"? The courts decided one way; director Medak clearly chooses the alternative explanation.
In any event, Chris shot the unarmed policeman in the shoulder. The policeman -- a true hero, by the way -- grabbed Derek and retreated. Derek was secured. For about half an hour, Chris played James Cagney in "White Heat" on the roof, until at last another unarmed policeman wandered up there, and Chris shot him in the head. Eventually, the initially wounded policeman captured Chris.
As it turned out Chris was a minor: he was sentenced to an open term and out in 10 years. Derek wasn't so lucky.
Medak's great movie "The Ruling Class" is a cult classic of black humor and carefully nurtured class outrage; in "Let Him Have It," that outrage has been honed and whetted like an ice pick. The movie acquires enormous force by its unwillingness to stoop to melodrama or histrionics. This movie lets you have it in the gut in a way that a lumberingly correct soap opera like "The Power of One" can't begin to appreciate.
It's the kind of resonant, controlled and moving film that is all but unmakeable in America today. More's the shame.
"Let Him Have It'
Starring Chris Eccleston and Tom Courtenay.
Directed by Peter Medak.
Released by Fine Line Cinema.