There has been a lot of talk in the media about a film opening up in wide release this weekend, “Spring Breakers.” What all the fuss is about is that you’ve got two young actresses who got their start on The Disney Channel appearing in a film that is a bit more risque…and with an R rating to boot. But these certainly aren’t the first people to take on roles that go against their family friendly image. Today’s film is one that shows a different side of Mickey Rooney. Heck, he’s still a cuddly teddy bear type of guy today at age 92. But in 1959, just a year after appearing in his last Andy Hardy film, Rooney plays a blood-thirsty death row inmate in “The Last Mile.”
The film begins with a prisoner, Richard Walters (Clifford David), being moved into a cell on death row. Among the other prisoners on the block is John “Killer” Mears (Rooney), who immediately begins to help the new guy with adjusting to life on death row. On the very night Walters is brought on the block, he gets a taste of the severity of his new environment as he watches one of the other prisoners take the long walk to the room at the end of the hall for his execution. Though the film is in black and white, we’re told that the door to the room is green…take that Stephen King!
Walters only has a few weeks before his scheduled execution. As the night approaches, Walters hopes for a stay of execution, but things don’t seem to be going his way. The guards on the block don’t make things any easier. Unlike Tom Hanks and his touchy feely guards of “The Green Mile,” guards such as Drake (Donald Barry) take great joy in tormenting the prisoners with stories of what the electric chair has in store for them.
On the night of Walter’s execution, things are moving along as planned with the reading of the sentence, last meal, and a visit from the priest (Frank Overton). As Drake comes with a pad and paper to take down Walter’s last words, Mears seizes on the opportunity to grab him through the bars…strangling him. He then grabs the keys, releasing himself and the other prisoners. They then storm the other guards, grab the guns, and start taking hostages…including Father O’Connors. Now, the warden (Alan Bunce) has a stand-off on his hands and it soon becomes clear that Mears won’t hesitate to kill his hostages one by one until his escape is arranged.
This is the second film version of the play The Last Mile. The first film came in 1932 and stared Spencer Tracy. It is very obvious from the get go that this is based on material originally written for the stage. For the first half of the movie, most of the characters stay in their cells clinging to the bars. There’s not a lot of room for creative staging of these sequences. The dialogue is well written, but this first half of the film does drag. We do, however, get a few creative shots with some interesting lighting choices that cause the prison bars to cast ominous shadows.
Once the riot comes, though, the film really takes off. Forget the loveable kid version of Rooney you know and love. He comes completely unhinged. There is a twisted sort of fire in his eyes as he becomes more and more obsessed with idea of getting out, though we the audience know that he really doesn’t stand a chance in the end. You kind of get the impression that he knows it too. Rooney’s diminutive size also helps make the whole dynamic pretty unique as he holds cops twice his size at gunpoint. It is a very compelling performance.
It takes some patience, but “The Last Mile” does payoff in the end. It may have been a grittier type of role than what folks were used to seeing out of Mickey Rooney, but he’s still held onto that Hollywood nice guy image. He’s still showing up in Muppet movies, after all. If that’s not success I don’t know what is.