The Jericho Mile (1979, Michael Mann)

The Jericho Mile plays a little like a truncated mini-series. The first hour of the film introduces the characters, the ground situation, and does an entire arc for six characters. There’s a minimal subplot about prison psychologist Geoffrey Lewis trying to convince seemingly super-fast-running inmate Peter Strauss to open up in therapy. Lewis then gets the idea to have Strauss run against some college runners; the subplot involves warden Billy Green Bush and track coach Ed Lauter, but it’s all just set up for the second half.

The first hour is all about Strauss and best friend Richard Lawson. Strauss is the quiet, obsessively working out white guy, Lawson’s the affable Black guy. They stay away from the Nazis (Brian Dennehy, Burton Gilliam, and Richard Moll), and they stay away from the Black Liberation Army guys (Roger E. Mosley and Ji-Tu Cumbuka). They’re just friends, and it’s a beautiful arc. Both Lawson and Strauss get epic monologues, with director Mann showcasing the performances. Mile’s technically uneven for a TV movie—there’s clearly different film stock, and the sound’s terrible—but Mann, Strauss, and Lawson were definitely approaching the film as an acting showcase. It’s almost stagy, but never in a bad way, just Mann spotlighting the acting well.

Lawson needs to bump up a visit from his wife and newborn baby, and only Dennehy can get it done, which pisses off Mosley. It feels like a short story, but immediately after, there’s this sports movie about Strauss’s Olympic possibilities uniting the prison behind him. The first hour directly informs the second half—Strauss’s reasons for trying to compete, for example—but there’s also all the ground situation to build on. Mann opens the film with a five-minute montage of life on the prison yard. Mosley’s pumping iron, Dennehy’s holding court, Miguel Pinero and the Mexican gang are playing handball, Lawson and Strauss are running. There’s this great prison newspaper sports page narrative device to kick off Lewis’s interest in Strauss (only not really because Strauss was on his radar already). It goes nowhere in the second half, which is weird, but Mile runs out of track in the third act, so it’s not a surprise….

Anyway.

The wide-reaching character development arcs in the second half all build off material Mann subtly baked into the film. Mile’s exceptionally well-directed. It’s a shame Rexford L. Metz’s photography and, especially, Michael Hilkene and James E. Webb’s sound isn’t better because it ought to be a sublime viewing experience. Mann directs it; budget and circumstance don’t allow it.

The problems all come as the big race approaches. It’s a sports movie, after all, there’s got to be a big race. There are some existing problems, like Bush busting ass as the warden and never being good enough. The part’s written like a reformer with political ambitions, but Bush plays it without motivation and then makes some bombastic choices like he ought to be wearing a novelty hat. In one shot, Lauter appears just as confused by Bush’s behavior as I am.

And some of the performances aren’t as good as the best performances—Strauss and Lawson—but the movie’s all about showcasing those performances. Mosley, Dennehy, and Lewis are all solid as the main supporting players, but their parts are limited. They exist to react to Strauss and other events, to provide fisticuffs to delay the race.

Everything’s going along just fine until they need to resolve Strauss’s therapy arc, which they create right at the end of the second—it’s running and then, wham, great Strauss monologue—and then resolve two or three scenes later after the race. It’s so fast, and there’s none of the promised character development for lifer Strauss going outside the prison. Instead, it’s just the second part of his therapy breakthrough monologue.

It feels like they had three one-hour episodes; they kept the first one, then cut the second two hours down to one. The second act’s bumpy at times too, but Mann nails the sports movie, so it’s okay. But the finale’s just too messy.

Excellent performance from Strauss, a really good one from Lawson. Strauss gets better writing (script credit to Mann and Patrick J. Nolan).

Jimmie Haskell’s music is interesting. About a quarter is great, a quarter is bad, another quarter is just there, and then the rest is Sympathy for the Devil but in a non-copyright violation-y way. The movie’s theme music is Sympathy for the Devil, which is on the nose considering it’s about a sympathetic prison inmate.

Still. Jericho Mile’s beautifully directed, with some phenomenal performances and strong writing.


This post is part of the World Television Day Blogathon hosted by Sally of 18 Cinema Lane.

One Comment

  1. 18cinemalane

    Really good review! I had never heard of this movie, but it sounds like an interesting sports story. While reading your review, I took note of how therapy played a role in the narrative. The connection between athletics and mental health has been incorporated into the societal conversation in more recent years. So, the inclusion of therapy in a sports film from the ’70s seems ahead of its time. Thanks for participating in my blogathon! Will add your entry to the participation list right away!

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