Michael Mann has enjoyed a long and varied career producing an impressive canon of work. His first film, the Emmy Award-winning made-for-television The Jericho Mile, may have been light on budget, but it showed Mann's eye for style and dramatic substance coupled with an impressive soundtrack. Made in an era when network television films had an ounce of prestige to them, this film is a tightly constructed prison drama with a talented cast featuring Peter Strauss, Richard Lawson, and Brian Dennehy. Kino Lorber Studio Classics brings the film to Blu-ray in terrific order with a solid A/V presentation and a great audio commentary track to round out the bonus features. If you're a Michael Mann fan, consider this one Recommended.
The 1970s was a great time for made for television films. From Brian's Song to Duel, one of the Big Three television networks always had something worth forgoing a movie theater and tuning in the T.V. set for. While Michael Mann may be known for Miami Vice and introducing the world to Hannibal Lecter, he got his feature film start with The Jericho Mile. Starring Peter Strauss, Brian Dennehy, Richard Lawson, Beverly Todd, Geoffrey Lewis and a dozen other great actors, the film is a simple prison-drama about one man's struggle with his inner demons and the attention that comes his way when it's discovered he's one of the fastest runners in the country.
Larry "Rain" Murphy (Peter Stauss) is a lifer. Locked up in Folsom for murder, he keeps to himself. Stays in his own head and doesn't cause trouble. The only guy he's let into his little world is a fellow con called Stiles (Richard Lawson) as the pair share an affinity for spending their time running around the prison yard. When the Warden and the prison counselor Dr. Janowski (Geoffrey Lewis) discover Murphy can clear a mile in under four minutes, the pair plan to enter him into contention races for the summer Olympic Games as a showcase of their rehabilitation efforts. But Murphey is a lifer. He's behind bars and tall concrete walls and the only idea of true freedom he has is in his head during those precious few minutes it takes him to run 5,280 feet. Entertaining the idea of a world beyond those walls is dangerous for any convict, especially a lifer like Murphy.
The first formal screenwriting course I ever took focused on writing films for television. While there's a traditional three-act structure in place, there are also subdivisions built into time for commercial breaks. Scenes need to have a flow, slow at the start and then faster towards the end so you can work in more commercial breaks and not lose the audience's attention. Watching a film like The Jericho Mile today, it's easy to feel that rhythm play out. The film takes its time, introduces all of the major players, and sets the stage where this prison yard drama will unfold. It's a great piece of work and while the story itself may not be complicated, Mann and his co-writer Patrick Nolan keep the film focused with well-drawn characters you come to care about.
Impressively enough, Mann and his crew were allowed to shoot on location in Folsom. It not only lends itself a sense of authenticity to the prison drama but also works to lend credibility to Murphy and his internal struggles. The confined tight framing keeps up the sense of eternal claustrophobia that only relaxes whenever Murphy is running in the yard. It's a simple visual technique, but it's effective. As the film moves on and Murphy's closed life intertwines with the politics of the prison inmates, the walls start to get a little tighter making his drive all the more relatable.
One would naturally expect some sort of traditional sports underdog drama to unfold, but that doesn't happen here. This isn't that sort of feel-good movie of the summer event like one would get from Hoosiers. The drama that unfolds may be neutered for network television, but it doesn't pull punches. It's not about happy endings and it's all the better for it. It's been a long time since I'd seen this film, and I'm glad I got to reconnect with it. It's a terrific example of how great Michael Mann can be with simple and to-the-point material.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Jericho Mile arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc, the disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Considering the filming and release circumstances -- shot on location, made for television, low budget, etc. -- The Jericho Mile offers up a pretty standard 1.33:1 1080p transfer. It's filmic without appearing very cinematic. It has the look and feel of a well-made T.V. film. Film grain is retained and offers up some strong detail levels, but the image is confined by its source. Colors are strong with healthy flesh tones and good primaries. Blues and reds are particularly vivid. There are a couple sequences where flesh tones got a little hot tilting toward red, but those are only a few brief moments. The outdoor yard scenes in Folsom look the best here. Black levels are even, but this isn't a very dynamically lit film mostly consisting of bright and even lighting. The race sequences or whenever Murphy is on the track are the most striking and picturesque of the film. Some speckling remains and a couple of stains appear from time to time but that's about it. Considering its age and stature, this is a pretty healthy transfer.
With an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio mix, The Jericho Mile earns some strong points. Dialog is clean and clear throughout without any issues. Sound effects are nicely layered evoking the claustrophobic confines of the cellblocks and then open up nicely when the action moves to the yard. These are some great moments of atmosphere and spacing. Scoring by Jimmie Haskell does a great job of aping classic rock tunes from The Rolling Stones and The Beatles among others. If you know your music you'll hear a lot of familiar motifs and they really help round out the mix while feeling relevant to the moment. Free of any hiss, pops, or other age-related issues, this is a clean and effective audio mix that works perfectly for this film.
While not very bountiful, I appreciate that Kino Lorber was able to secure the Audio Commentary with Lee Gambin. I'd have loved to have heard from Mann himself, but this is a great commentary.
Audio Commentary Featuring film historian Lee Gambin
Trailer (HD 00:26) No sound.
Television often proves to be fertile grounds for up-and-coming talent. Michael Mann staked a name for himself with the made-for-television drama The Jericho Mile. With a great cast and a smart script, the film plays to traditional sports film conventions without falling into familiar tropes or predictable plot contrivances. It may be a small budget film for television, but Mann's signature flair for style and substance are on full display. Kino Lorber Studio Classics brings the film to Blu-ray in fine order with a strong video transfer and a great audio mix complete with a great audio commentary to round out the bonus features. This is an easy one to call Recommended.