T o me, Michael Mann is the George Sanders of directors—a reliable Mr. Style who always makes his films look good even if the material is a bit thin. Mann’s fine visual sense is on full display in his first movie, The Jericho Mile (shown on TV in America, but released in theatres elsewhere), finding an improbable beauty in the yard of Folsom Prison. That feat is even more impressive when you realize that it’s the real thing you’re seeing—the movie was shot within Folsom prison, and many inmates appear on camera.
The film’s central character is Jerry Murphy (Peter Strauss), a white man doing a life sentence for something he’s not sorry about—killing his father to stop him from abusing his teenage stepsister. His one friend within the prison is a black inmate, R.C. Stiles (Richard Lawson), a cross-racial friendship that violates the unwritten power structure of the prison. About all Murphy does is run, and when the prison warden (Billy Green Bush) finds out he’s running competitive times, he arranges for him to train for the Olympic trials. When R.C., more out of naivete than anything else, runs afoul of the prison’s Big Bad, drug dealer “Dr. D.” (Brian Dennehy), with predictable consequences, Murphy redoubles his training efforts, reducing poor R.C. to the prison equivalent of the girl in the refrigerator.
The Jericho Mile is based on a short story by Patrick J. Nolan, adapted by Nolan and Mann, and apparently it struck a chord with contemporary viewers and critics (prison issues were much in the public consciousness in those days), because The Jericho Mile won three Primetime Emmy Awards in 1979, for Strauss (Lead Actor in a Limited Series), Nolan and Mann (Outstanding Drama or Comedy Special), and editor Arthur Schmidt (Film Editing for a Limited Series); it was also nominated for Outstanding Drama or Comedy Special. Mann and his colleagues also won an award from the Directors Guild of America, as did Schmidt from the American Cinema Editors, USA. The success of The Jericho Mile garnered Mann a number of offers to direct, launching his career (his next film was Thief, a personal favorite of mine, and of course he’s also done big-budget films like The Last of the Mohicans and Ali.
The technical qualities of The Jericho Mile are all first-rate, and Strauss gives a committed performance even if it’s not always believable (his running style is nothing like that of a world class miler, and he’s carrying a lot of weight on his upper body as well, although you could argue that he fits the mold of an athlete in a movie rather than that of an athlete in in the real world). My problems are with the story, which is full of improbabilities, from inmates who apparently have no idea how things work in prison, to a lifer being allowed to train outside the prison walls without supervision by anyone but his track coach. Still, it’s an interesting film and particularly worth seeing if you want to see what Michael Mann was doing in his pre-Miami Vice years. | Sarah Boslaugh
The main extra on the disc is a commentary track with film historian Lee Gambin. A silent version of the film’s trailer is also included.