Howard W. Koch is remembered as a successful producer in film and television, helming many Academy Award ceremonies and TV shows (The Odd Couple), as well as blockbusters Airplane! and Ghost. But in the 1950s and early 60s he was a “B” film director. The Last Mile was one, and as interesting as the obvious “no budget” he had to deal with; the film itself is a dated and overwrought, rather creaky morality play. Recently released under the MGM Limited Edition Collection, the no frills DVD is a solid transfer, but there are absolutely no special features. It’s as stark as the film itself.
Set entirely on death row, The Last Mile tells the story of a handful of inmates waiting out their time before execution. Their rising fear and anger, egged on by spitting and fuming inmate Mickey Rooney, spills over when a guard, standing too close to his cell, is grabbed and strangled. The cell block is taken over by the convicts, and a small riot (remember the budget) ensues. Questions of death and morality and God play out when the inmates take the guards and a priest hostage.
This is a smart backdrop for a low budget film, as Koch utilizes every corner of the cell block to ring as many interesting shots out of it he can. Other than the warden’s office (which could have literally been shot in another corner of the cell block) there are only a handful of exteriors when the prison guards start firing into the cell block. So the feeling (intentional or not) of claustrophobia is a predominant element. But the story is so dull and pedestrian, that even its short 81 minute running time feels like a death sentence.
For some reason, writers Milton Subotsky and Seton Miller (from John Wexley’s play) decide to give us no backstory into any of the characters. Other then a few throw away lines about “murder,” we get no detail as to why these men are facing their death sentences or who they were before they were prisoners. A foreward at the top of the film tells us that it’s based on a true story and that since this incident, there have been great strides in prison reform. So with that in mind, one can only assume that the message is “anti-death penalty,” and if we don’t know what these inmates did, we’ll be more inclined to sympathize and identify with them. But the film does just the opposite, and we are left with symbols, not characters (the Italian lover, the black man of faith) and have no investment in them at all.
After two different scenes of inmates receiving last rites (and we are treated to the entire ceremony of these rites) and inmates tossing out trite comments like, “He’s gonna ride that Midnight Special,” we’re eager for something – anything – to happen.
The action begins at the hour mark, when Rooney and gang try to shoot their way out, with lots of machine gun fire and death. Rooney, given the opportunity to break out of his song and dance persona, goes the wrong way, providing an over-the-top hammy performance. He’s given several close-ups that offer up much mugging and teeth gnashing. It would be funny, if we weren’t already in a boredom induced coma.
Not bad enough to be good, or good enough to be enjoyable, leave The Last Mile in the bargain bin, where hopefully it will never get a reprieve.
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