Discussions about prison movies that include sports usually kick-off with talk about Burt Reynolds in the original “The Longest Yard.” It is actually a solid movie (for you Burt-haters out there) and is a well-told story with a solid supporting cast. However, five years later there was a really special TV movie involving an athlete in prison that was even better than “The Longest Yard.” The movie is “The Jericho Mile” and it starred Peter Strauss as a convicted murderer who runs every day at Folsom Prison in California. It has good acting throughout; a neat teleplay co-written by director Michael Mann before he became a household name with “Miami Vice;” and the cinematography, while looking a bit TVish, was actually done at the prison for the ultimate verisimilitude. You can easily find it on YouTube.com. Check it out; you won’t be disappointed!
‘The Jericho Mile’
(1979; 97 minutes; not rated – TV movie; directed by Michael Mann and starring Peter Strauss, Brian Dennehy, Geoffrey Lewis and Ed Lauter)
RUNNING WITHIN HIMSELF
I’ve been hitting YouTube.com recently for some old films I could not find anywhere else and the lastest is the one I’m reviewing today: “The Jericho Mile.” It’s a prison film with an athlete at the center with the usual prison subplots abounding. It was made by Michael Mann, who would go on to be the 1980s poster boy for cool with “Miami Vice” (he would also be the first to bring Dr. Hannibal Lecter to the screen, but that’s another story).
“The Jericho Mile” won three Emmys: one for lead actor, one spilt between Mann and a co-writer and for editing – it as nominated as best drama or comedy special. So, it’s no surprise that it is quality (those of us who saw its original broadcast before it won its awards weren’t surprised). “The Jericho Mile” is how television movies should be done – with style, creativity and sharp-as-a-razor acting.
In “The Jericho Mile,” Peter Strauss plays “Larry ‘Rain’ Murphy,” who is serving life for murdering his father. He admits it (he says his father was abusing his stepsister and so one day he stopped it forever) but keeps to himself. He’s also called “Lickedy Split” for his running. Each day at California’s Folsom prison he runs around the exercise yard, which is approximately a quarter-mile circuit. He’s a loner with only one friend, black inmate and that relationship makes both somewhat suspect in rival gangs’ minds. As he counts off the miles, it comes to the attention of a prison official that Strauss is fast … really fast. In fact, in a prison yard in basketball shoes he’s running 4-minute miles.
Prison officials see a chance for some public relations and call in a college running coach, who brings in his milers to run with Strauss. He beats them and becomes a coaching project with the aim to qualify for a shot at the U.S. Olympic trials — and a bit of public relations for prison reform in California.
At the same time, black, white and Hispanic gangs observe a somewhat uneasy existence – each in its own part of the yard. However, the white gang needs sugar for its still and Strauss’ friend is looking for an early conjugal visit. The white gang promises to juggle the paperwork for the sugar and the game is on. However, they double-cross him by sending in one of their drug carriers instead of his wife and he doesn’t play ball and the woman’s arrested. The predictable ensues and he’s killed and so Strauss is now caught between rival gangs.
However, the killing manages to break a boycott of inmates helping build a regulation track needed for Strauss to qualify for the trials. The black gang, after finding out that Strauss did not recruit his friend to the white gang’s ploy, breaks the boycott, the track is built … and there’s a big “but” but tossed in – Strauss must pass an interview with track officials. He doesn’t pass when he won’t repudiate his crime (he believes that despite the horrific nature of the crime that his father had to be stopped). Strauss doesn’t get to run, but does a final lap on the nice prison track at a time that topped all the U.S. qualifiers for the Olympics (he wouldn’t have competed anyway, since the 1980 Olympics were boycotted by the U.S. because of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan).
Strauss is wonderfully stoic as “Murphy” and really does an award-winning job here (even though he didn’t win any for this one). He captures the personality of a loner convict who gets caught up twice in events beyond his control. Strauss was coming off the wildly successful “Rich Man, Poor Man” mini-series with Nick Nolte when he did “The Jericho Mile” and has been nominated for five Golden Globes including for “Masada.”
Golden Globe winner Brian Dennehy, who plays white gang leader “Dr. D,” gives the best turn of the supporting cast. He’s just perfect as the tough, cool leader who cooks up the plan to smuggle drugs into the prison. Dennehy does the offhand, convict sincerity with aplomb. Good work, Brian. He’s also been in “Best Seller” and was the leader of the alien rescue party in Ron Howard’s “Cocoon.”
Geoffrey Lewis plays “Dr. Bill Janowski” and is the inmates’ counselor. Lewis does a lot with a role that didn’t look to have much wiggle room. He’s a solid supporting performer as he showed, but not as well, in “Every Which Way But Loose” with Clint Eastwood and the neat TV horror film “Salem’s Lot” (click here for my review) also in 1979.
Roger E. Mosley plays “Cotton Crown” and is the leader of the blacks in the prison. Unlike some gang leaders, Mosley manages to lead with intelligence as well as considerable strength. He does a really sharp job with this character. Mosley has also been in TV’s “Magnum P.I.” and with Burt Reynolds in “Semi-Tough.”
Ed Lauter plays “Jerry Beloit,” who is the college track coach who becomes the trainer and somewhat manager of Strauss and his running. Lauter is quietly smooth in this role, just about the same as he was as a guard in the original “The Longest Yard” prison film. He was also terrific in “The Amateur.” He died of mesothelioma at the age of 74 in 2013 after five decades and 205 acting credits. He also talks about the “Jericho Mile” as the walls come tumbling down (prison, get it?).
The actor with the most recognizable accent is Burton Gilliam, who plays white gang member “Jimmy-Jack.” He does a good job with this dramatic role, but was truly hilarious (a lot because of his Southern accent) as one of the cowboys in “Blazing Saddles” (click here for my review). Gilliam was also in “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” with Eastwood.
Since it was released on television, “The Jericho Mile” cannot be compared at the box office with other films from 1979. The No. 1 film at the box office was “Kramer vs. Kramer” with $106.2 million, according to Wiki. Also released that year was “Apocalypse Now” (No. 4 with $83.4 million).
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- William Prince plays the hoity-toity track official who wants Strauss to say he’s sorry and is reformed. Prince does this role very well and when Strauss calls him a “snake” (this was TV in the 1970s, remember – not today’s MTV), you know it’s all over. Prince was also in “Spies Like Us” and “Network.”
- Richard Moll, who would gain minor fame from TV’s “Night Court,” has a small part as “Joker Gibb.” It’s a small part and there’s really no evaluation of the actor to be given.
- The actor with the most noticeable name is Ji-Tu Cumbuka, who plays “Brother Lateef,” and he was also in “Bachelor Party” with Tom Hanks (click here for my review).
- Directly from IMDb.com: “During the shoot in Folsom, there were thirteen stabbings and one murder among the inmates, but not a single crew member was injured or threatened over the course of the production, and no one ever witnessed any violence. “
© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015.
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