The Last Mile


1h 21m 1959

Brief Synopsis

Jail house tensions mount as a killer's execution approaches.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Action
Prison
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 1959
Premiere Information
World premiere in Detroit, MI: 21 Jan 1959
Production Company
R. S. Productions, Inc.; Vanguard Productions, Inc.
Distribution Company
United Artists Corp.
Country
United States
Location
New York, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the play The Last Mile by John Wexley (New York, 13 Feb 1930).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 21m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White

Synopsis

At a state prison in the 1930s, convicted murderer Richard Walters is transferred to the death house where he joins seven other prisoners: Ed Werner in cell one, Jimmy Martin in cell two, John Mears in cell three, Fred Mayor in cell five, Vince Jackson in cell six, Red Kirby in cell seven and Tom D'Amoro in cell eight. Walters is placed in cell four, next to Mears, who bitterly resents the nickname "Killer" given to him by the press and with which the guards goad him constantly. The prisoners' anxiety over Martin's execution that night is heightened by the disturbing poetry recited by the unbalanced Werner. The guards, led by Officer Drake, incite the prisoners, especially Mears, by mocking Martin's coming death. Despite the high emotions running throughout the block, when Father O'Connors arrives to pray with Martin, the prisoners fall silent. Although Martin must be pulled from his cell toward the death chamber, the guards allow him to say goodbye to each of the other men. When the chamber door sticks briefly, Martin cheers the prisoners by making a wisecrack and then walking into the chamber unaided. A day or two later, Pete Rodriguez is placed in cell two. While the prisoners restlessly pass the time in various ways, Walters laments to Mears about not hearing news from his mother regarding a request for a stay despite his execution being only five days away. When some of the other men discuss Martin's courage, Mears angrily scoffs that no one is brave when faced with death. On the day of Walters' execution, Drake delivers a telegram from a reporter requesting permission to view Walters' death. Furious, Walters refuses, only to have Drake coldly reveal that he has learned from the warden's office that Walters' stay has been denied. Later that evening, Warden Stanley F. Stone is informed that Walters has requested his final meal. Stone then sends the official copy of the death warrant to the death house principal keeper, his brother-in-law, Pat Callahan. In the cells, Walters' leg is shaved where the electrodes will be placed and Drake cruelly taunts him, revealing he will not shave his head in order to make the killing as difficult as possible. Callahan then arrives to read the death warrant and when the prisoners protest, he insists he is fulfilling the rules. Walters asks to be allowed to write his mother and girl friend and the guards purposely take their time locating pencil and paper. Walters then receives his final meal of steak and potatoes, but becomes sick after one mouthful. O'Connors visits Walters and afterward, Mears scoffs at the priest's declaration of faith and promises of an afterlife. Drake then prepares to write down Walters' letter to his mother, but when the guard grows sarcastic, Mears explodes in a fury and grabs Drake through the bars, strangling him until he passes out. Taking Drake's keys, Mears frees himself and all the other prisoners except Werner, who cowers in fear. Mears declares his intention to break out, but when Kirby, who has recently received a thirty-day stay, hesitates, Mears threatens him. Using their stools as weapons, the prisoners rush the guard room, but before they can overpower the guards, Jackson is shot and killed. Mears takes the guards' weapons, then locks the guards and O'Connors in a cell before calling Stone on a speaker phone to demand a car for his escape. To prove his determination, Mears shoots Drake and dumps his body into the courtyard for Stone to see. Stone orders the guard house men to open fire on the death house and a fierce gun battle breaks out. When an abrupt silence descends, Mears peeks out a window and, spotting guards approaching with gas bombs, opens fire, killing several. When Kirby suggests threatening to kill the remaining guards unless Stone accedes to his demands, Mears agrees, but the police continue firing relentlessly into the death house. One guard, Peddie, is killed as well as prisoners Mayor and Rodriguez. During a pause in the gunfire, Mears menaces the remaining guards and the younger Harris pleads for his life, asking Mears to take the oldest officer, O'Flaherty. Mears sends O'Flaherty into the courtyard with a message for Stone that he will kill eash hostage, starting with Stone's brother-in-law, until his demands are met. Stone steadfastly refuses Mears's ultimatum, believing if he gives in it will ruin not only his reputation but also that of the prison. When Mears calls Stone and prompts Callahan to beg for his life, Stone cuts off the speaker. Mears coldly begins reading Walters' death warrant out to Callahan before shooting him. While Stone plans to have gas grenades fired into the death house, Walters balks when Mears next threatens O'Connors. Mears tells Stone of his intention to kill the priest, but the warden refuses to listen. Walters intervenes when Mears turns on O'Connors, but while the men are fighting, Walters is shot by a burst of fire from outside. Moments later, the cells are shattered by a grenade explosion. Seriously wounded, Walters pleads with Mears not to let the police patch him up just to complete the execution and, to O'Connors' horror, Mears shoots Walters. The remaining prisoners, Kirby and D'Amoro, tell Mears they have run out of ammunition. Uncharacteristically distressed by having to kill Walters, Mears declares his need to get outside and, dropping his weapon, goes into the courtyard where he is shot to death.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Action
Prison
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 1959
Premiere Information
World premiere in Detroit, MI: 21 Jan 1959
Production Company
R. S. Productions, Inc.; Vanguard Productions, Inc.
Distribution Company
United Artists Corp.
Country
United States
Location
New York, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the play The Last Mile by John Wexley (New York, 13 Feb 1930).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 21m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White

Articles

The Last Mile


The term "death row" refers to an actual row of cells, housing condemned prisoners awaiting execution. At the end of this row is an imposing and ominous door. On the other side of that door lies oblivion and eternity--but a prisoner will only see the other side of that door when that final day comes. Until then, what lies on the other side of the door remains a cruel suggestion, brought to mind when the lights flicker any time the electric chair is being tested, or used.

The journey from cell to door is short in steps, but the distance is psychologically vast. Prisoners call it "the last mile."

A dramatist could ask for little more than such a setup, so fraught with existential crisis and immediate social significance. In 1929, in the wake of the Great Depression and widespread interest in social justice, writer John Wexley built a Broadway play about several prisoners suspended between life and death, waiting together for their respective trips down The Last Mile. A young Spencer Tracy played the lead role of John Mears, a hardened soul who has earned the nickname "Killer" for reasons both past and future.

As Hollywood is wont to do, the success of the play inspired a film version. In came screenwriter Seton I. Miller to adapt the play for director Samuel Bischoff. Because Spencer Tracy was then an unknown, he was passed over in favor of Preston Foster. Wexley disowned the 1932 production, which he derided as a disappointing compromise. Disappointment was to be Wexley's recurring companion. In short order he was blacklisted in Hollywood, professionally exiled for his political beliefs.

More then twenty five years after Wexley wrote the play, three men at important crossroads in their respective careers came to intersect one another through its pages. One of these men was Milton Subotsky, an American screenwriter who, along with producing partner Max Rosenberg, was trying to break into the realm of low-budget exploitation films. In just a few years, he and Rosenberg would found Amicus Films to compete head-to-head with England's Hammer Studios with a similar brand of horror and science fiction thrillers. Still a greenhorn in 1959, Subotsky dusted off Seton Miller's screenplay and gave it some updates for a more battle-hardened generation. Now all he needed was a star for The Last Mile (1959).

Meanwhile, Mickey Rooney was trying to shake his reputation for light comedy. It was a hard thing to shake, given that Rooney had been a comedian since the start. From his days as the child star of the Mickey McGuire cycle of short comedies to his teenage years as the lead in the Andy Hardy cycle to comedy features to his TV sitcom The Mickey Rooney Show (1954), Rooney had made himself a brand name for a certain kind of gentle entertainment. The chance to play a ruthless killer meant a chance to break out of that self-made pigeonhole. Rooney used his star leverage to help get the film into production as a vehicle for his career redirection.

Rooney brought with him director Howard Koch, who had just finished filming Andy Hardy Comes Home (1958). Like a lot of directors his age, Koch got his start with Westerns, and would soon make the transition to working mostly in television. He would go on to win a number of Emmys, take over as head of production for Paramount, and become the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Although those heady accomplishments were still in his future, he came to the set of The Last Mile with experience shooting jailhouse thrillers--just a few years earlier he directed Big House, U.S.A. (1955).

Subotsky and Koch cast the rest of the film with experienced but unknown Broadway players, who were willing to work cheap for the chance to play in movies. There is a difference in intensity that an actor should bring to the stage versus the subtlety demanded by a movie camera, and the cast of The Last Mile misjudged where to pitch their performances. Evidently, Rooney got a taste for scenery and set to chewing it at every opportunity. The rest of the cast rose to his manic level, and the result is a shrill and stagey production full of theatrical exaggeration. The Last Mile may have marked an important turning point in the careers of its makers, but they did better work after making that turn.

While Rooney pours himself 110% into his role, Koch seeks to match his intensity with visual flair. For a low-budget film it is handsomely mounted and full of carefully considered compositions. Musician Van Alexander fills the soundtrack with a strident jazz score, as defiant and threatening as the convicts in the story. At one crucial moment, where the story shifts from philosophical drama to its violent final act, the music swells urgently while the camerawork becomes stylized, and the viewer is forgiven for wondering if the entire picture is about to transform into a musical.

None of this is to say that the film isn't earnest. Part of Wexley's genius lay in his realization that he need not be sensationalistic to be effective. Other prison dramas depict their guards as cartoonish sadists; while this film begins with an exculpatory disclaimer reminding viewers that it is not meant to discredit any current prison officials, the guards in the film are at worst casually cruel. Other prison dramas depict innocent convicts unfairly sentenced; in this film, it is taken as a given that all the convicts are guilty of their crimes. It is too easy to say that what is wrong with the death penalty is that it can be injudiciously applied, or that prisons are run by heartless jailers. Those things can yield to reform. The Last Mile makes the subtler but more damning claim that the entire premise is inhuman--that the death penalty is wrong, even for the most irredeemable of villains. Wexley, Miller, and Subotsky each call out the state for a basic hypocrisy: you cannot condemn murder and also claim the right to take a life.

Not even Mickey Rooney's ham sandwich of a performance can blunt that message.

Producers: Max Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky
Director: Howard W. Koch
Screenplay: Seton I. Miller, Milton Subotsky; John Wexley (play "The Last Mile")
Cinematography: Joseph C. Brun, Saul Midwall
Art Direction: Paul Barnes
Music: Van Alexander
Film Editing: Robert Broekman, Patricia Lewis Jaffe
Cast: Mickey Rooney (John 'Killer' Mears), Don 'Red' Barry (Drake), Alan Bunce (Warden), Frank Conroy (O'Flaherty), Michael Constantine (Ed Werner), Clifford David (Richard Walters), Clifton James (Harris), Leon Janney (Callahan), George Marcy (Pete Rodrigues), John McCurry (Vince Jackson).
BW-83m.

By David Kalat

Sources:
Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Balcklistees in Film and Television, 1950-2002.
Alvin H. Marrill, Mickey Rooney: His Films, Television Appearances, Radio Work, and Stage Shows.
John Wexley, The Last Mile: A Play in Three Acts.

The Last Mile

The Last Mile

The term "death row" refers to an actual row of cells, housing condemned prisoners awaiting execution. At the end of this row is an imposing and ominous door. On the other side of that door lies oblivion and eternity--but a prisoner will only see the other side of that door when that final day comes. Until then, what lies on the other side of the door remains a cruel suggestion, brought to mind when the lights flicker any time the electric chair is being tested, or used. The journey from cell to door is short in steps, but the distance is psychologically vast. Prisoners call it "the last mile." A dramatist could ask for little more than such a setup, so fraught with existential crisis and immediate social significance. In 1929, in the wake of the Great Depression and widespread interest in social justice, writer John Wexley built a Broadway play about several prisoners suspended between life and death, waiting together for their respective trips down The Last Mile. A young Spencer Tracy played the lead role of John Mears, a hardened soul who has earned the nickname "Killer" for reasons both past and future. As Hollywood is wont to do, the success of the play inspired a film version. In came screenwriter Seton I. Miller to adapt the play for director Samuel Bischoff. Because Spencer Tracy was then an unknown, he was passed over in favor of Preston Foster. Wexley disowned the 1932 production, which he derided as a disappointing compromise. Disappointment was to be Wexley's recurring companion. In short order he was blacklisted in Hollywood, professionally exiled for his political beliefs. More then twenty five years after Wexley wrote the play, three men at important crossroads in their respective careers came to intersect one another through its pages. One of these men was Milton Subotsky, an American screenwriter who, along with producing partner Max Rosenberg, was trying to break into the realm of low-budget exploitation films. In just a few years, he and Rosenberg would found Amicus Films to compete head-to-head with England's Hammer Studios with a similar brand of horror and science fiction thrillers. Still a greenhorn in 1959, Subotsky dusted off Seton Miller's screenplay and gave it some updates for a more battle-hardened generation. Now all he needed was a star for The Last Mile (1959). Meanwhile, Mickey Rooney was trying to shake his reputation for light comedy. It was a hard thing to shake, given that Rooney had been a comedian since the start. From his days as the child star of the Mickey McGuire cycle of short comedies to his teenage years as the lead in the Andy Hardy cycle to comedy features to his TV sitcom The Mickey Rooney Show (1954), Rooney had made himself a brand name for a certain kind of gentle entertainment. The chance to play a ruthless killer meant a chance to break out of that self-made pigeonhole. Rooney used his star leverage to help get the film into production as a vehicle for his career redirection. Rooney brought with him director Howard Koch, who had just finished filming Andy Hardy Comes Home (1958). Like a lot of directors his age, Koch got his start with Westerns, and would soon make the transition to working mostly in television. He would go on to win a number of Emmys, take over as head of production for Paramount, and become the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Although those heady accomplishments were still in his future, he came to the set of The Last Mile with experience shooting jailhouse thrillers--just a few years earlier he directed Big House, U.S.A. (1955). Subotsky and Koch cast the rest of the film with experienced but unknown Broadway players, who were willing to work cheap for the chance to play in movies. There is a difference in intensity that an actor should bring to the stage versus the subtlety demanded by a movie camera, and the cast of The Last Mile misjudged where to pitch their performances. Evidently, Rooney got a taste for scenery and set to chewing it at every opportunity. The rest of the cast rose to his manic level, and the result is a shrill and stagey production full of theatrical exaggeration. The Last Mile may have marked an important turning point in the careers of its makers, but they did better work after making that turn. While Rooney pours himself 110% into his role, Koch seeks to match his intensity with visual flair. For a low-budget film it is handsomely mounted and full of carefully considered compositions. Musician Van Alexander fills the soundtrack with a strident jazz score, as defiant and threatening as the convicts in the story. At one crucial moment, where the story shifts from philosophical drama to its violent final act, the music swells urgently while the camerawork becomes stylized, and the viewer is forgiven for wondering if the entire picture is about to transform into a musical. None of this is to say that the film isn't earnest. Part of Wexley's genius lay in his realization that he need not be sensationalistic to be effective. Other prison dramas depict their guards as cartoonish sadists; while this film begins with an exculpatory disclaimer reminding viewers that it is not meant to discredit any current prison officials, the guards in the film are at worst casually cruel. Other prison dramas depict innocent convicts unfairly sentenced; in this film, it is taken as a given that all the convicts are guilty of their crimes. It is too easy to say that what is wrong with the death penalty is that it can be injudiciously applied, or that prisons are run by heartless jailers. Those things can yield to reform. The Last Mile makes the subtler but more damning claim that the entire premise is inhuman--that the death penalty is wrong, even for the most irredeemable of villains. Wexley, Miller, and Subotsky each call out the state for a basic hypocrisy: you cannot condemn murder and also claim the right to take a life. Not even Mickey Rooney's ham sandwich of a performance can blunt that message. Producers: Max Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky Director: Howard W. Koch Screenplay: Seton I. Miller, Milton Subotsky; John Wexley (play "The Last Mile") Cinematography: Joseph C. Brun, Saul Midwall Art Direction: Paul Barnes Music: Van Alexander Film Editing: Robert Broekman, Patricia Lewis Jaffe Cast: Mickey Rooney (John 'Killer' Mears), Don 'Red' Barry (Drake), Alan Bunce (Warden), Frank Conroy (O'Flaherty), Michael Constantine (Ed Werner), Clifford David (Richard Walters), Clifton James (Harris), Leon Janney (Callahan), George Marcy (Pete Rodrigues), John McCurry (Vince Jackson). BW-83m. By David Kalat Sources: Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Balcklistees in Film and Television, 1950-2002. Alvin H. Marrill, Mickey Rooney: His Films, Television Appearances, Radio Work, and Stage Shows. John Wexley, The Last Mile: A Play in Three Acts.

Quotes

Sometimes you have to put your faith in what you can't see. In what you wish.
- Narrator

Trivia

Notes

The following written prologue appears in the onscreen credits: "The picture you are about to see is based on an actual event which occurred in a prison in the American southwest some time ago. Since that time, the treatment of prisoners and the choice, selection and training of prison guards and prison personnel has improved enormously through the more humane methods of modern scientific penology. The characters in the film, however, are fictitious and are not to be considered as typical of either the American penal system or the people who carry it out."
       John Wexley's play was an early, critical success for actor Spencer Tracy, who starred as "Killer Mears" on Broadway. Clark Gable garnered attention from Hollywood film studios when he starred as Mears in the Los Angeles run of the play. In 1932 K. B. S. Film Co. produced a film version of the play, starring Preston Foster and directed by Sam Bischoff (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40). An August 1955 Daily Variety item indicated that Richard Conte was offered the starring role in the production planned by R. S. Productions, Inc. The item incorrectly stated that Tracy starred in the 1932 film version. A September 1958 Hollywood Reporter item indicated that the film, which did not go into production until 1958, was shot on location in New York.
       According to a March 1959 Daily Variety article, Wexley sued United Artists, Fox West Coast and R. S. Productions for $150,000 in damages for omitting his screen credit. Wexley's name did not appear in the print viewed and the outcome of the suit has not been determined.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1959

Remake of the 1932 film of the same name, starring Preston S Foster.

Released in United States 1959