Friday, May 17, 2013

The Jericho Mile (1979)

          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


Anonymous said...

I have never seen this movie, but based on your review I am definitely going to check it out.

Also, I noticed that when I try to click onto the title 'The Getaway' from your list in order to read your review I instead get bounced back to your homepage, so you might want to check that out and get it fixed.

Also, I sent you a friend request on FB. I looked at some of your pictures and I must admit I am jealous. Not only have you met Paul Schrader and David S. Ward, but also my screenwriting idol the very prolific Larry Cohen. A man who has written some truly original stuff. He has also written some great teleplays for old TV-shows like 'The Fugitive'. In July to commemorate his 72nd birthday I will be reviewing 5 of his films from the 80's.

Tommy Ross said...

Sounds like just my kind of flick. If you happen to own this on VHS then hold on to it cause it's an out-of-print collector's item. It was never released on Region 1 DVD and used VHS's are fetching at least 45 bucks on Amazon....

crackblind said...

I remember watching this when it was first on. I was 10 and blown away. It was repeated a few times and I made sure to catch it each time. I haven't seen it since then but remember it vividly. I had no idea Michael Mann was involved ( not something I would have noticed or found memorable at the time) which explains a lot now that I know. It also introduced me to Sympathy for the Devil, so that was a bonus.

About a month or so back a conversation I was having with my older son reminded me of the movie and I looked for it we we could watch it. It's practically impossible to purchase (I'm only saying practically cause someone ay point the way. Truthfully, I couldn't find a copy after hunting for a week). Oddly enough, I was able to find a download copy. I'm not proud of having to resort to bootlegging, but this is where the Internet amazes me.

Unknown said...

This movie has stayed with me since the first time I saw it back in the 79. When i hear The song by the rolling Stones sympathy of the devil I always see peter running on the track. I always new this movie was great just never realized it was the best tv movie ever made
An absolute must see. Many great actors all great performances.

Unknown said...

Left an impression on me,"While you are running, you feel like your feet aren't even touching the ground."