MGM's print-on-demand service – which offers the studio's lesser-known, not-on-DVD films for purchase, and which we here at CraveOnline have been periodically reviewing over the last few months – has now brought us the 1959 prison drama The Last Mile, a shockingly violent and insufferably turgid melodramatic hothouse of glorious overacting and emotional cheap shots. And while I found myself perhaps enduring the film more than engaging with it, there is something enjoyable, perhaps in a campy way, about seeing the diminutive and cherubic Mickey Rooney shrieking with rage and gunning down prison guards in cold blood. Rooney is so committed to the role, though, that for brief moments his over-the-top performance becomes transcendent. His character, a prisoner on death row, is understandably bitter, and by the film's end, we understand that he would rather dictate the circumstances of his inevitable death than merely watch a clock run down before being carted off to the electric chair.
The Last Mile is based on a play by John Wexley and is, I have learned, the second time the play has been adapted to film (the first time being the obscure 1932 flick All the World Wondered). And while I don't typically come down on films for feeling theatrical or stagey, The Last Mile's ratcheted level of bombastic theatricality works against it. No line is read without being shouted. Why weep quietly, when body-wracking, snotty sobs will do? The entire first hour of the film, which ought to be a slow burn, feels more like a funereal demonstration in amateur audition piece theatrics. Indeed, I had to look online to see whether or not this was a TV movie, as it was marked by all the cheap emotional manipulation associated with that form.
Mickey Rooney plays a prisoner named John “Killer” Mears who has watched several of his fellow jailbirds walked down the titular mile to the electric chair. He has seen the lights dim as the chair saps juice from the building. A recent addition to death row (played by John Vari) goes through the usual processes, including the leg-shaving, the last meal, and the absolution from a stern and mature priest (Frank Overton). The priest is perhaps the best character in the film, as he morally objects to the desperation and the death around him, and realizes that he can, perhaps, entreat desperate men to make better decisions.
The prison guards are all horrible bullies. They mock the inmates and emotionally torture them. In a more modern film, they would probably savagely beat the prisoners as well. The bad guys, too, are villainous caricatures who smirk evilly and rub their hands together in wicked delight as the prisoners bawl and shriek. I understand there people are capable of cruel acts, but I don't think anyone's behaved like this in a real prison. Perhaps the filmmakers sensed this; there's a disclaimer at the film's start decrying the guards' behavior, and assuring the audience that steps have been taken to make sure guards don't behave like this anymore.
The film's final 30 minutes are essentially a big shootout, as Mears and the other prisoners stage a breakout and many people die. This is the earliest film I have seen to feature a man getting shot in the forehead. Yes, we actually see the head wound. Guys get machine gunned, and there's a lot of bleeding. There's even a grenade explosion. I guess it's in keeping with the film's previous melodrama that the climax should also be over the top. Despite the level of action, this brief 81-minute film feels much longer.
The Last Mile is not so politically salient; the notion of a need for the electric chair is never addressed. But this film is more interested in the sweat and panic and emotional opera of inmates, and not really in making any relevant points. As a gut-wrenching exploration of grand torture, The Last Mile works well. But a complex and subtle drama it is not.