Michael Mann’s Prison Yard Thriller That ran him to the big Screen
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL MANN/1979
STREET DATE: JULY 03, 2018/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
The Jericho Mile is many things, and is good at being each of them. Shot in twenty-one days inside of Folsom, the prison made famous by Johnny Cash, The Jericho Mile is an incarceration film, an athletics film, and most crucially (as film critic Lee Gambin correctly underlines on his audio commentary track), a race film. That’s “race” as in racial tensions and relations; though racing on foot is also a key component. Vital in the legacy and longevity of The Jericho Mile, though, is its status as the first film by its director, one Michael Mann.
Having impressed the powers that be with his helming of episodes of Police Woman and the like, Mann scored the chance to move up to making a movie-of-the-week. The result is The Jericho Mile, a humble beginning in the face of Mann’s future epic crime productions such as Heat, The Insider, and Public Enemies. Jericho, however, remains worthy of placement alongside of his finest films. In an era when the haphazard zooming zoom lens was the canker sore of filmmaking technique, Mann goes the other way, relying upon meticulous framing and editing to visually craft his dramatic tale. Shots are motivated by content, not the style of the day. And yet, The Jericho Mile is unmistakably a film of its time. One of the better ones. Even then, on this three-week shoot executed under location-enforced restrictions, Michael Mann was emerging as the premiere filmmaker of psychological crime tension; a world-builder to suit the many moral shades of his landscapes, be they all of L.A., or (in this case) the barely breathable solitary confinement of Folsom.
The Jericho Mile succeeds, over time, at depicting the unhappy internal state of it’s main character while also achieving full immersion into its version of prison life.
The prisoner populace is dominated by three racially divided gangs; blacks, Chicanos, and most dangerous and powerful, the Arian whites (led by a frightening Brian Dennehy). Our protagonist, Larry “Rain” Murphy, aka “Lickity Split” (Peter Strauss) wants nothing to do with any of them. Instead, he spends every available moment racing around the prison yard, in a controlled run. He’s fast, though his need for speed is a glaring indicator of his self-imposed isolation. A lifer for murder one, his small cell is completely undecorated, bearing no reminders of the outside world. Sometimes he removes a pipe from within his sink, rigging it to do pull-ups. But all in all, Murphy’s life is one of minimalist self-denial, running in measured circles from his past and his present.
Before long, the officials are made to realize just how fast Murphy is. A plan comes together to get him onto the U.S. Olympic running team. The whole thing is seemingly a win-win for both him and the prison, from a P.R. standpoint. But the thing is, running to engage the outside world goes against why Murphy is running at all. When he tears around his makeshift track, his moppy hair flapping behind him and his mustache collecting sweat, it’s all about validating his sentence- the reason for which is revealed later in the story. Nevertheless, when things take an ugly turn in the skeleton-muraled prison, Murphy, the loner that he insists upon being, is convinced to make the attempt at greatness.
Murphy does have one friend. R.C. Stiles (Richard Lawson) is an African-American inmate whose chosen to distance himself from the prison’s “African coalition”. Instead, he runs with Murphy, his cellblock next door neighbor. While locked up, they have spirited heart-to-hearts through the wall. Stiles and Murphy understand each other like brothers. They argue, they debate, they tell the other what the other’s problem is. The big difference, though, is that Stiles longs for the outside world, a tragic prison weakness rooted in his love of his wife and newborn child. This is the longing that leaves him susceptible to the plots and ploys of the unreforming populace.
The Jericho Mile succeeds, over time, at depicting the unhappy internal state of its main character while also achieving full immersion into its version of prison life. Without being about escape or even getting out (though that possibility is dangled), and in keeping with prime time television standards of the time (no major swearing or sexual assault, though there is some disturbing violence), Michael Mann has created a relatable reality with authentic relationships, in ninety-seven minutes.
The repeated use of the opening riffs of “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones is both absolutely inspired and frustrating. Its raw and almost tribal drum beat coupled with Keith Richards’ Hell-squealing electric guitar is a perfect refrain for the story’s internal and external turmoils. But- fair warning- the song proper never does materialize. Hence, its fragmented inclusion is ultimately one of impotence, though no one could argue that such a move is creatively incorrect here. For all of that, though, the song never does receive a proper screen credit.
The film ended up winning Emmy awards for its terrific editing and for lead actor Peter Strauss. If it hadn’t, it would’ve been a travesty. Mann of course got snubbed, but ultimately landed on his feet, what with Miami Vice and Crime Story for television, and theatrically, The Last of the Mohicans, Manhunter, Heat, Collateral, and more. But for its time, along with Steven Spielberg’s Duel, The Jericho Mile is the rare vintage made-for-network-television movie that puts most of its contemporary theatrical features to shame. It’s a career-launcher that’s great to have on Blu-ray.
The disc looks and sounds astonishingly great, its few visual inconsistencies forgivable anomalies. Kino Lorber Studio Classics has made good with an attainable release of this film that, by virtue of its very format, is virtually guaranteed to look and sound better than the film ever has (barring overseas theatrical screenings, where apparently the whole “Sympathy for the Devil” did play). Included is an informationally busy and energetic audio commentary track by Lee Gambin, and the film’s trailer, sans audio.
Fans of Michael Mann will want to run at a full sprint to get a copy of this engaging and important film, one that takes on so much and goes so far with all of it.