The latest instalment of the Bourne franchise got me thinking about the dynamics of filming action in American cinema. While the Bourne films have been terribly influential, re-working the action paradigm, Jason Bourne (2016) is a completely unwarranted film other than nourishing capitalist sentiments. Like I said, Bourne got me thinking specifically about Michael Mann’s exceptional staging of action sequences, which often amount to an orgasmic visual and sensory poetry. Mann’s action is not dirty but majorly graceful; a kind of scholarly attention to detail is made implicit in the micro gestures of his characters that amplify a grand psychological schemata. In 1979 Michael Mann was 36 when he co-wrote and directed The Jericho Mile. This was a TV movie for ABC that Mann was inspired to make when he was in Folsom State Penitentiary researching to re-write Straight Time (1978) for Dustin Hoffman. Mann would spend much of the 1980s producing popular TV crimes series such as Miami Vice and Crime Story, using television as a basis to develop and test out ideas which he would in some cases return on a larger cinematic canvas. Perhaps the most notable example is L.A. Takedown (1989), a TV movie which would re-emerge as the epic crime saga Heat in 1995.
In The Jericho Mile, Larry ‘Rain’ Murphy (Peter Strauss) is the forerunner to the archetypal Mann protagonist: a male loner, habitually a professional criminal and proletariat, unyielding to the powers that be. In fact, there is something inherently spiritual and ancient in the Mann protagonist; articulating a contempt for normal life while adhering to an unbreakable, punishing moral code. Serving a life sentence in Folsom State Penitentiary Murphy has resorted to distance running in the prison yard, an act he has perfected so precisely and rigorously, the administration at the prison notify the Olympics distance running team of Murphy’s exceptionalism. Mann portrays running as a kind of expiation ritual for Murphy, explicated through a corporeal figuration in which the body, notably through slow motion and rhythmic editing, becomes magnified as both defiantly spiritual and political. If running is one of the few actions the state cannot regulate, Murphy’s refusal to stop running is a conventional manifestation of the rebellious anti-authoritarian prisoner often witnessed in the genre of the prison film.
The Jericho Mile is a work cloaked in the repertoire of the American prison film, professing Mann’s preliminary and assiduously subversive capacity to navigate genre cinema. If the auteur theory is dead and no longer holds the validity it once had, engendering a sickening proselytisation of mostly white dead directors, then it becomes almost sacrilege in these overly testing times of film criticism to put up a reasoned defence of Mann’s authorship without being razed to the ground by a profanely persecutory tide of reactionary debate typically instigated by hack culture. The mere mention of the word auteur is certain to raise enough dread to vanquish those directors who may have been immortalised in the past. But Mann’s work does owe a substantial debt to the legacy of American genre cinema and he may in truth remain one of the handful of directors including Martin Scorsese who have continually sought to refine thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in the hope of inadvertently living up to the auteur myth.
The Jericho Mile lacks an aesthetic finesse and technical proficiency, which can be partially attributed to the relatively low budget of the production compared to Mann’s later films. Nonetheless, a considered glance points to cursory stylistic signifiers such as the classic use of an exacting asymmetrical/planimetric framing Mann would nurture exponentially into an abiding theme of transience; characters floating through the non-spaces of super-modernity and habitually sutured into urban architectural landscapes – an expressionistic totem of his crime films. But like so many of Mann’s later protagonists, Murphy is out of synch with society; he is literally moving against the grain. And it is the equation of time, usually not having enough of it, and in this case, time as a source of oppression which rings true in the final act of The Jericho Mile. When Murphy throws the stopwatch, a series of slow motion edits amplify the act of ideological resistance, thereby articulating a refusal to not only stick it to the man, the powers that be, but stressing the rule of no attachments, later emerging as a defining trait of the Mann protagonist.
One can read further into the merits of this ideological sentiment, establishing a proletariat exhortation of the outsider and the repudiation of assimilation and the surrendering of a specifically ancient notion of moral integrity. The prison board does not let Murphy run, and they were never going to, because he will not repudiate the social circumstances in which his crime took place; doubly, Murphy cannot as it would mean having to compromise his view of the world. The sense of self worth and integrity the Mann protagonist guards against is also demonstrated in the sequence that sees Murphy burn Dr. D’s (Brian Dennehy) stash of money. The burning of the stash is in retaliation for the murder of Stiles (Richard Lawson), a black inmate, and Murphy’s sole friend. Since Mann’s next film Thief (1981) is manifestly connected to The Jericho Mile, the eponymous Frank (James Caan) is very much how Murphy would have behaved had he made it back on the street, and when Murphy burns the stash, it is another act of defiance that is played out again at the end of Thief when Frank destroys what he has built over the years. In both cases, there is a patent notion the Mann protagonist cannot be at peace until a kind of requisite equilibrium is restored and this can at times mean the neutering of materialism.
Folsom would become the connective glue, bringing together Mann’s crime universe, and in The Jericho Mile, Folsom materialises as an intense microcosm of racial and ethnic fidelities. In Folsom, Mann depicts an intense gang rivalry, often a key feature of the American prison genre, contested by the inter-racial friendship between Murphy and Stiles who is killed by the white gang for his refusal to become a drug mule. In some respects, and though Murphy resolutely remains a loner, he later emerges as a communal force, creating a united front amongst the varying gangs, the hispanic and black gangs eventually coming together to oppose the ruling hegemonic white prison gang. Murphy’s act of running is far more political than emotional, personal than mutual, enunciating an extraordinary catharsis which soars as Murphy races round the prison yard to the blinding guitar riffs of Sympathy for a Devil. It is a Mann refrain, one filled with a melodious, organic and beguiling cinematic sleight of hand.