December 7, 2010
THE LAST MILE (1959)
Mickey Rooney plays John “Killer” Mears in 1959’s The Last Mile, a remake of the 1932 Preston Foster film of the same name. Both are based on a stage play by John Wexley, who should be quite well known to crime film buffs as the screenwriter of such classics as Angels with Dirty Faces, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, City for Conquest, Cornered, and The Long Night.
The Last Mile is one of those “ripped from the headlines” prison pictures with a no-so-subtle social agenda, set in the death house at an unnamed prison in an unnamed state — the idea being that the events of the film could happen anywhere at any time, so long as we embrace a system of capital punishment. All of the film’s action unfolds along a single row of eight cells, fronted by a bare wooden table for the screw charged with babysitting the inmates. All of the cells are located on one side of the row, facing outward (at the audience), so it’s easy to see how this would have played out in live theater, and the film is marred by its inability to break free from its roots.
Seton Miller’s adaptation of Wexley’s play is solidly crafted. The story here divides nicely into halves: the first provides an exposé of life on the cell block: what the prisoners are thinking, how they pass their days, their relationships with the guards, and so forth. The second follows what happens when Rooney’s character is able to break out of his cell and take over the death house for a short time.
The film opens when a new man, Walters (Clifford David), is escorted onto the block for what is supposed to amount to a two-week stay. There’s a protocol to everything here, both officially and in the culture of the other residents, who all introduce themselves to the scared kid and inform him that they prefer to be called by their cell numbers instead of their real names. Walters has arrived just in time: it’s the big night for the man in cell number two, so the new inmate gets to witness the execution ritual straight away. We see the inevitable visit from the priest, the last meal, and the dramatic walk out of the cell and through the “green door.” Despite the tendency of low budget films to reach for melodramatic heights, all of this stuff is presented in a straightforward fashion. The only real cliché comes when the lights flicker on and off as the big moment comes, but even this is forgivable: we never actually see the chair (outside the opening credits), and hey — people say the lights really do flicker.
The following day a new man replaces the inmate “evicted” the previous evening, and life continues as usual in the death house. Inmates trade smokes, play some checkers, banter with the guards, and talk about their girls on the outside. You’ll grimace at this, but the lone black inmate paces his cell shirtless, and prays for the other cons. When bullets start flying later in the second half of the film, he’s naturally the first one killed. I love the Edward G. Robinson film Black Tuesday, so I have to add that on the other hand, at least the character here doesn’t pass the day singing spirituals.
The guards aren’t treated very fairly, but the film claims to have been based on a true story and features an opening title card that cautions viewers that prison protocol — hiring practices in particular — have been greatly improved since the incidents portrayed first occurred. At any rate, most of the prison employees come across like the last kid picked at the playground — unhappy people with an axe to grind, taking their frustrations out on the prisoners whenever they get the chance. They constantly taunt and jab, particularly about pending executions. The hits keep coming, even during those last fateful walks.
Things progress along these lines until it becomes Walters’ time to go through the green door. Circumstances place on the guards too close to Mears’ cell, and he take the opportunity to choke the guy out and grab his keys. Mears runs about like a tiny little whirlwhind, freeing prisoners and seizing guns and ammo from the guard station. The film’s second half ceases to be an ensemble affair and becomes a snarling Mickey Rooney picture — note the poster above, you get the idea. It also adheres much more closely to the typical prison picture story arc: standoffs, gun battles, hostages, demands, tough decisions, guys get killed and stuff blows up — you’ve seen it before. Despite the familiarity this remains entertaining — don’t let me scare you off.
What’s to like here? The film doesn’t waste time on that biggest of prison movie clichés: going from con to con and hearing him talk about whether he’s guilty or not, or if he got framed and railroaded into the chair. It’s actually refreshing to watch a movie that takes as a given that all of the inmates did it, and then just gets on with the story. Considering how The Last Mile wants to generate some sympathy for the guys on the inside, it’s surprising that it doesn’t try to pawn off at least one innocent man on us — after all, it’s not like we haven’t executed a few here in the real world. Furthermore (and this is a bit more understandable), the movie doesn’t paint the prisoners as cowards either. In that early scene when one of the men is taken away the actor plays it well: the guards have to physically remove him from his cell, but by the time he makes it to the door his bravado has returned and he’s able to walk through on his won two feet.
Mickey Rooney is also pretty good. We all like the guy, but he was never a top-drawer talent as a dramatic actor. He spent much of his young life as arguably the most famous and beloved actor in America; but when Andy Hardy and the Babes movies went away, things got tough for Mickey. Even as a person who did not live through Hollywood’s golden age and has experienced these films in restrospect, I find Mickey a little hard to swallow in tough guy parts. Rooney made a number of noirs, but he was typically cast — in pictures like Quicksand or Drive a Crooked Road — as a kid who gets in way over his head. In The Last Mile he plays a tough-as-nails killer, and if you can get past any hang-ups you might have about Rooney, you’ll be surprised at how good he is. Make no mistake, somebody else could have played the part better, just as Mickey would have been better if the budget had allowed for a few retakes, but all in all he (and a cast of unknowns) do pretty well here. What’s not to like? A jazzy score that feels far out of place and almost ruins the whole thing.
Some viewers might find The Last Mile a bit campy, and maybe it is, but on the whole it’s well worth your time. It’s streaming for free on Netflix these days, and those interested in the 1932 version can download and watch for free at the internet archive — accessible from the movie’s IMDb page.
The Last Mile (1959)
Directed by Howard Koch
Cinematography by Joseph Brun and Saul Mitwall
Screenplay by Seton Miller and Milton Subotsky, based on a play by John Wexley
Starring Mickey Rooney
Released by United Artists
Running time: 82 minutes