Michael Mann didn’t just introduce himself to viewers with his first feature-length directing job. He dazzled them. Arresting, emotional, and smart from its first frame to its last, this made-for-TV drama delivers an unusual story with meticulous realism, showcasing Mann’s signature tropes of a hip visual style, deeply felt character work, and ingeniously integrated music. The picture also demonstrates why Mann is virtually peerless in his depiction of the criminal mind, because he doesn’t portray crooks as monsters—rather, he portrays them as self-aware professionals ruled by strict codes.
Set inside a maximum-security prison, The Jericho Mile revolves around Larry Murphy (Peter Strauss), a lifer who obsessively runs “fast miles” every day in the prison courtyard. Isolated from all but a few fellow inmates, Larry lives inside himself; the exhilaration of athletic challenge give his existence meaning and structure. One afternoon, humanistic prison shrink Dr. Bill Janowski (Geoffrey Lewis) clocks Murphy and realizes how fast the man is moving, so he confers with Warden Earl Gulliver (Billy Green Bush). An innovative penologist, Gulliver realizes that nurturing Murphy’s talent might inspire other inmates to break the cycle of jailhouse profiteering and post-incarceration recidivism. Gulliver invites a nationally ranked running coach, Jerry Beloit (Ed Lauter), to observe and possibly train Murphy. After staging a race between Murphy and several professional runners, Beloit declares that Murphy has Olympic potential. Yet that’s only the surface of the story. Unfolding concurrent with Murphy’s surprising odyssey is a grim drama involving powerful inmate Dr. D (Brian Dennehy), who runs a jailhouse drug ring and gets into a hassle with Murphy, which inadvertently sparks a prison-wide racial conflict.
Laced into all of this is a potent revelation of Murphy’s layers. We don’t learn about the nature of his original crime until we’ve already become invested in his journey, so Murphy emerges as a profoundly sympathetic character—we’re able to root for him with full awareness of what he’s done, and full awareness of his capacity for future violence. Presenting Murphy without apologies might, in fact, be the greatest accomplishment of this fine film, so it’s no surprise that Strauss took home an Emmy for his dimensional performance, or that Mann and co-writer Patrick J. Nolan shared an Emmy for the picture’s outstanding teleplay. Yet on many levels, The Jericho Mile is most impressive as a compendium of all the skills Mann had developed thus far as a writer-producer on episodic TV shows, and that he would continue to embellish in his extraordinary feature career. He uses editing and music to create vivacious rhythms; he shoots real locations and sets equally well to conjure an engrossing sense of place; and he guides actors toward naturalistic performances.
Character players including Bush, Lauter, Lewis, and Roger E. Mosley do some of their career-best work here, imbuing their roles with lively individuality. Dennehy, still very early in his screen career, is animalistic and frightening, and Strauss achieves several moving moments by channeling a volatile combination of compassion and rage. (Strauss totally nails Mann’s trademark device of having criminals speak without contractions to avoid misunderstanding, so he seethes when delivering such lines as, “Man, I am into nothing! That is how I do my time!”) Plus, as he so often does, Mann pulls the whole movie together with an ingenious musical flourish, turning a Latin-ized version of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” into Murphy’s searing theme song.
The Jericho Mile: RIGHT ON