After cutting his teeth on documentaries in the early 1970s, Michael Mann moved to Hollywood and planned “to make it big in ninety days,” but found that “for two years I couldn’t get arrested.” In the process of learning how to write screenplays over two years, he came to the attention of the Robert Lewin, who had been a screenwriter for popular television shows like Rawhide and Mission: Impossible and was now the story editor on Starsky and Hutch. Lewin taught him about story structure and had Mann working as an assistant story editor. He would end up writing the first four episodes of the show and it became a huge success.
His run on Starsky and Hutch led to a stint on the T.V. show, Police Story, which was run by playwright Liam O'Brien and included famous crime writer, Joseph Wambaugh (who wrote The Onion Field) as a contributor. Each episode was based on a real event, working with the policeman whose story it was based on. Mann "learned a lot about writing and about working with real guys." Working on Police Story continued Mann's fascination with journalism and performing detailed research on a given project.
Mann's writing received strong critical notices and was a great learning experience. The success from writing led to him directing an episode of Police Woman and an opportunity to develop his own weekly T.V. series, Vegas (1978). However, the network wanted to water down the series and Mann clashed with director Richard Lang over the direction that the show was to take so he left after writing the pilot.
Mann’s T.V. work brought him to the attention of producer Tim Zinnemann and actor Dustin Hoffman who hired him to adapt ex-convict Edward Bunker’s novel, No Beast So Fierce. Mann spent three months conducting first-hand research at Folsom State Penitentiary in California. His work would go uncredited and eventually be made into the gritty crime film, Straight Time (1978).
Mann's success in television gave him the confidence to ask ABC for a shot at directing a film. He set up a made-for-T.V. movie called Swan Song about a skier but the project was delayed when its star, David Soul, needed a year to recover from a spinal injury. The head of ABC television’s Movie of the Week sent Mann a prison-themed teleplay written by Patrick J. Nolan. Mann extensively rewrote it, incorporating his research from Folsom and the result was a made-for-TV movie called The Jericho Mile (1979).
The film opens with a montage of prison life in almost documentary fashion to an instrumental version of the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil.” Mann really gives a flavor of the different kinds of prisoners and the gangs they belong to via a sports writer who interviews someone (Roger E. Mosley) from the Black Brotherhood and a Latino gang member who brags about his handball skills all the while Dr. D (Brian Dennehy), the leader of a white supremacist gang, deals drugs. Mann shows how these various gangs interact with each other with the fascination of an anthropologist. He immediately captures the sights and sounds of life on the yard and then takes us inside to show what life is like among the cellblocks.
The film’s protagonist is an inmate by the name of Larry “Rain” Murphy (Peter Strauss) who is serving a life term in Folsom for shooting and killing his father for raping his stepsister. He spends his yard time running laps. He lives a Spartan existence with no creature comforts – just plain white walls, which anticipates the protagonist in Mann’s later film, Blackhat (2015). Much like that character, Murphy even works out in his cell. His entire focus is on running.
In contrast, R.C. Stiles (Richard Lawson), the African-American man in the cell next to Murphy, has his walls covered with photographs of loved ones and receives in the mail one of his newborn baby girl. He’s gregarious and chatty while Murphy internalizes and says little. The next day, Murphy is out on the yard again, only this time the prison officials take an interest and discover that he is running close to a four-minute mile.
Like many Mann protagonists, Murphy has a single-minded obsession that drives him, which is running. Like Neil McCauley in Heat (1995), Murphy keeps to himself, developing no attachments to anyone and he adheres to same mentality that ex-con Frank espouses in Thief (1981), but runs into trouble when, against his better judgment, befriends Stiles and is dragged into the man’s problem.
Mann shows how deals are made among the inmates through favors. In order to speed up his next conjugal visit with his wife, Stiles makes a deal with Dr. D, which upsets the Black Brotherhood who feel that Stiles is betraying his race. This understandably creates tension between Murphy and Stiles, causing the former to lose a bit of his focus.
Meanwhile, the prison warden (Billy Green Bush) brings in a state track and field coach (Ed Lauter) from a Sacramento college who has Murphy run against three of his best athletes. Incredibly, Murphy beats them all, impressing the coach. The powers that be want him to run in the upcoming Olympic trials, but he turns them down. For him, it would be a cruel taste of the outside world and he knows that the rest of his life will be spent in prison. Of course, Dr. D’s favor has strings attached and once Stiles realizes what they are he becomes outraged. One gets the uneasy feeling that things are not going to end well for him.
Peter Strauss not only looks the part – he’s in phenomenal shape with the lean, muscular build of a runner – but also embodies it by portraying a self-made man who survives prison life through his running. It defines who he is while providing him with a day-to-day structure. He delivers an intense performance, picking his moments to explode with anger and then dialing it back to a simmer, like the fantastic monologue he delivers when Murphy explains to the prison doctor (Geoffrey Lewis) why he’s serving a life sentence. Strauss delivers his dialogue with heartfelt emotion and it’s hard not to get caught up in his character’s dream of becoming one of the best runners. The actor demonstrates an incredible commitment to the role, setting the standard for every subsequent lead actor in future Mann films.
The always-watchable Brian Dennehy is good as the smooth-talking Dr. D whose gang holds slight control over the prison population. He has a smiling façade but behind it is a lot of menace, especially when someone crosses him and threatens his drug trade. Richard Lawson is also good as the contrast to Strauss’ inmate. He instills an infectious streak of hope in Stiles who looks forward to being reunited with his family but this also gives him a lot to lose. He ultimately plays a tragic character, but one that has a profound effect on Murphy.
There are some truly powerful moments in The Jericho Mile, like when Murphy sends a message to Dr. D by burning the man’s drug money in the prison yard in front of everyone, but the most emotionally moving one is Murphy’s climactic run at the end of the film. The style of The Jericho Mile is quite crude compared to Mann’s future films as he adopts a more naturalistic look from his documentary work and it fits the subject matter. Like other Mann films, this one has an ear for distinctive lingo as it features authentic prison-speak. It’s not just what these men say but how they say it that makes it so believable. It didn’t hurt that Mann was allowed to shoot scenes in Folsom and even used real inmates as extras, which only lends to the film’s authenticity.
By the end of The Jericho Mile, Murphy stays true to himself even if it means he is unable to run in the big race. He chooses to live life on his own terms, refusing to compromise to the powers that be. At the end, Murphy may be in prison but to him as long as he is able to run he is free because he has nothing to prove to anyone but himself. This is symbolized by Murphy throwing away a stopwatch that he uses during training. It smashes on the ground. He doesn’t need to be constrained by record times or qualifying times – the only thing he has to beat is his own expectations.
Mann shot The Jericho Mile for only $60,000 and was told by the prison warden that there had been several individual stabbings – something that happened routinely and if a gang or race war were to occur, the film crew would have to leave. They wouldn’t be able to finish the film. Mann found a solution by casting 28 convicts in major roles and with Eddie Bunker’s help negotiated with all the prison gangs to have eight or nine of each group be in the film in exchange for no gang or race wars while they were there filming. He used film stock so that it was able to get a theatrical release in Europe. He won an Emmy for writing and a special Director’s Guild of America Award. After the film’s debut on ABC television, Mann received many offers to direct all kinds of feature films but turned them all down. He went to United Artists to ask for an $8 million budget and the freedom to direct a screenplay that he wrote, entitled, Violent Streets, which went onto become Thief.
Appelo, Tim. “Legendary Newsman Mike Wallace ‘Detested’ The Insider, Michael Mann Reveals.” The Hollywood Insider. September 22, 2014.
Feeney, F.X. and Paul Duncan. Michael Mann. Taschen. 2006.
Steensland, Mark. Michael Mann: The Pocket Essential Guide. Matrix Digital Publishing. 2009.