Many criminal cases over the years have turned on fine points of evidence, but the 1952 prosecution of Derek Bentley for the murder of Police Constable Sidney Miles may be the only instance in which life or death came down to a question of grammatical ambiguity. The facts were uncontested: Bentley, who’d participated in a burglary with his friend Christopher Craig, was already in police custody when the fatal shot was fired—by Craig. During the standoff, however, as the police ordered Craig to surrender his gun, Bentley yelled “Let him have it, Chris!” Craig subsequently shot one policeman in the shoulder and another, Miles, in the head, killing him instantly. As a juvenile (age 16), Craig couldn’t receive the death penalty, but Bentley, who was 19, could. Prosecutors argued that “Let him have it!” meant “Open fire!” and that Bentley, by egging Craig on, was just as responsible for the murder as if he’d pulled the trigger himself. The defense, on the other hand, maintained that Bentley, whose I.Q. was estimated at 77 (“borderline feeble-minded,” in the parlance of the era), was merely instructing Craig to give the gun to the officer who was requesting it. Convicted of murder, Bentley was hanged to death on January 28, 1953.
Peter Medak’s 1991 drama Let Him Have It, starring Chris Eccleston as Bentley and Paul Reynolds as Craig, openly sympathizes with the now-prevailing view that Bentley was railroaded. (Two years earlier, Elvis Costello had revived interest in the case via the song “Let Him Dangle,” which opens with the lines “Bentley said to Craig / ‘Let him have it, Chris!’ / They still don’t know today just what he meant by this.”) Medak, whose most celebrated films include The Ruling Class (1972) and Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), had previously made another, much more violent true-crime saga, The Krays (1990), which tells the story of England’s most notorious gangsters (immortalized by Monty Python as the Piranha Brothers, Doug and Dinsdale). Let Him Have It, by stark contrast, finds Medak in a despairing mood, depicting a tragedy that begins long before a jury chooses to assign an improbably malevolent interpretation to Bentley’s fateful words. Even Craig, the ostensible criminal mastermind and actual gunman, is essentially just playing at cops and robbers as a means of escape from intolerably dismal living conditions. Bentley was posthumously pardoned by the Crown in 1998, but while Let Him Have It no longer has an urgent mission, it’s an agonizingly sober film, still capable of inspiring righteous outrage on behalf of squandered lives.
Availability: Let Him Have It is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, or to rent or purchase from the standard digital services.