It's ironic that in a career of films whose main criminal masterminds take extraordinarily intelligent measures to avoid prison, Michael Mann's first film would be a study of incarceration. He starts there and never wants to go back. "The Jericho Mile" could be placed in that vein of inspirational sports movie, but it plays much better as a gritty prison film with humanistic overtones. Not available on DVD, Mann's first film is everything I've been anticipating.
Starring Peter Strauss as convicted murderer Larry Murphy stationed at Folsom Prison, he spends his idle days running in the yard. Somehow managing to avoid the racial squabbles and nationalistic sects that buoy the prison's population, Strauss is the strong silent type that will make up a majority of the figures in the rest of Mann's muscular career. Like Neil Macauley or James Caan's Frank in "Thief", Murphy is an articulate, studied man who speaks without contractions. In two of the film's best scenes featuring conversations between him and prison shrink Geoffery Lewis, Strauss lays out the reasons why he's in prison with a determined, steely gaze. And he finishes his outlook with the typical zen Mann outlook on life- "what went down went down... and I belong here." But all is not tranquil for Strauss as his best friend (Richard Lawson) is eventually murdered due to some shady dealings with prison gang leader Brian Dennehy. Strauss then throws himself completely into a regiment set up by the prison brass who see something special in the inmate's afternoon yard dashes and hope to propel him into an Olympic qualifying event.
Written and released as a television movie in 1979, "The Jericho Mile" was filmed inside Folsom Prison, mixing up the actors and utilizing real life inmates. Never shirking away from the tension and violence that exists behind bars, Mann and writer Patrick Nolan wrap a compelling story around territory that could turn mawkish. In large part, the success of "The Jericho Mile" is attributed to lead actor Strauss- who reminds one of a young bulky Mickey Rourke- and who inhabits his character with real depth and intelligence. Often times, prison movies minimize the characters into types, and "The Jericho Mile" avoids those pitfalls, eventually emerging as a personal story of conviction and defiance that has one rooting for the idea of a man who could literally run away from his guilt-ridden past.