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The Last Mile

The Last Mile(1959)

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teaser The Last Mile (1959)

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).

By David Kalat

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.

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