Crime and criminology are frequent subjects in the American cinema, which is littered with films depicting some of the harsh sociological realities of the culture. Like many other movies of their kind, Marc Rocco's Murder in the First and Ted Demme's Blow depict crime and social deviance using conflict theory. In both these films, struggles between the individual and the criminal justice system and between the individual and society at large are shown to be endemic to American culture. In particular, two main sociological themes are explored in Murder in the First and Blow. First, crime is shown to be a result of complex interactions between social class and psychological need. Poor persons often commit crimes not because they are inherently deviant or psychopathic individuals, but rather they deviate from social norms out of personal needs. In Blow, George Jung came from a working class American family disillusioned by the American Dream. When his father went bankrupt in spite of years of hard work, George set out to make money selling drugs. In Murder in the First, Henri Young stole five dollars to feed him and his starving sister, as both of them had recently been orphaned. Thus, both films illustrate that the individual's needs often conflict with overarching social norms. Second, both Murder in the First and Blow show how institutionalization and the American penal system can exacerbate social dysfunction, and can actually increase criminal behavior. In Blow, the main character calls prison a "crime school," as he entered knowing how to sell marijuana and left with an inside avenue to Columbian cocaine lords. Murder in the First depicts a man driven to insanity through inhumane treatment by prison wardens; he went in a petty thief and ended up a murderer. Conflict theory again accounts for the struggle between instinctual survival and social and political institutions.
The first theme demonstrated in both Murder in the First and Blow is that poverty can breed crime and that criminal behavior is often a function of socio-economic conditions rather than psychological dysfunction. However, Murder in the First and Blow treat the theme differently. Henri Young was far poorer than George Jung was before they committed any crime. Young and his sister were orphaned at a young age; at ten years old, Henri had to take care of his little sister. Economic conditions and harsh social realities led to his decision to steal five dollars from a cash register. Furthermore, a tough-on-crime attitude caused Henri to receive unusually harsh and unjust treatment from the American penal system. Thrown in the Acatraz as a political statement, Henri was brutalized, tortured, and deprived of human dignity.
In Blow, on the other hand, George Jung's family was working class, not destitute. His father had a solid work ethic that he imparted to his son. Nevertheless, the film shows that no amount of hard work can guarantee financial success. When George's father declares bankruptcy, the boy declares right then and there, "I never want to be poor." Though he loved and admired his father, George vowed not to become like him. Fully aware that working an honest job does not led to personal fulfillment, he fled to California and discovered that selling drugs was far more fun -- and lucrative -- than working from nine to five every day. Therefore, in both Blow and Murder in the First, the characters' initial state of poverty was in conflict with their needs. In Murder in the First, poverty caused immediate physical need such as hunger, whereas in Blow, poverty caused psychological needs, illuminating the fragility of the American Dream. Henri Young's crime was more a result of his immediate survival instinct, whereas George Jung's crime resulted more from disillusionment in the underlying social values and norms of his culture. In spite of the differences in which the theme is elucidated, both Blow and Murder in the First show that crime is often a result of necessity rather than a deliberate form of deviance. The filmmakers depict Young and Jung as sympathetic characters in spite of their crimes.
A second key theme explored in Murder in the First and Blow is that prison institutionalization can be detrimental to rehabilitation. In Murder in the First, this theme is especially poignant. A ten-year-old boy is institutionalized for stealing five dollars and eleven years later he kills another inmate. The filmmakers depict Henri Young as a martyr-like character by showing him in Christ-like poses, with striking imagery to underscore his pain and suffering. Moreover, the initial crime of stealing is shown in second-hand flashback, through the eyes of the defense attorney. Showing the crime through the attorney's eyes creates further detachment between the film's audience and the actual crime. The audience is thus prompted to view the crime as altogether trivial and not at all worthy of imprisonment. Sympathy for Young is further engendered through the fact that he was so young when he stole the money and that he stole not out of rebellion or defiance but out of a real desire to feed himself and his baby sister. Most of the beginning scenes of Murder in the First are artistic montages of Young being beaten by prison wardens and guards. Bloody and brutalized, Young is treated like an animal. His sensory deprivation while in solitary confinement further contribute to his dehumanization and to his being detached utterly from the social realities around him. Murder in the First examines the consequences of being socially impaired as a result of both torture and solitary confinement. Blow examines neither of these elements, although the film addresses the nature of prison culture in a way that Murder in the First does not.
In Blow, George Jung first enters prison under a relatively short sentence, for selling marijuana. He does well in the prison social circle by freely and proudly discussing his criminal escapades with other inmates. Jung happened to bunk with a fellow dealer who had ties with the cocaine trade and in a flash, he shifts from the relatively minor crime of pushing pot to the huge drug deals he makes under the tutelage of Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Exiting prison after his initial stint, Jung exclaims in the voice-over, "I went in with a Bachelor of Marijuana and I came out a Doctor of Cocaine." Knowing that he can survive much easier as a dealer than as a regular working stiff, George immediately embarks on his cocaine career when he exits prison, having forms a solid business tie with his prison cell mate. Thus, Blow shows how social interactions within prison foster further criminality. Behavior of wardens and guards are not discussed, and the prison system in general is not criticized in Blow in the same way as it is in Murder in the First. Nevertheless, both films examine the inability of the penal system to create true rehabilitation.
Both Murder in the First and Blow exhibit the conflict theory of sociology: individuals exist in conflict with society; social norms do not apply equally to all individuals; life is basically a matter of adapting to conflicts. The filmmakers present the criminal behaviors of both Henri Young and George Jung as being almost justifiable deviance. Their respective crimes are viewed as a product of social conflict: in the case with both Murder in the First and Blow, the conflict is initially class conflict. The films subsequently explore conflict theory through the clash of the individual against societal institutions and norms. Henri's attempt to escape from Alcatraz was an expression of social conflict. George's continued drug dealing in spite of having been repeatedly bused was also an exploration of social conflict theory. Moreover, one of George Jung's fellow inmates clarifies a key sociological reality when he states to George, "I'm a criminal -- no…