by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Charles and I watched quite a good movie from the 50-film Dark Crimes DVD box of public-domain titles: The Last Mile, a 1932 film of a successful play by John Wexley. The play was a major hit on Broadway and on the road as well; the lead role, John “Killer” Mears,” was played in the Broadway production by Spencer Tracy and in the L.A. road company by Clark Gable, both of whom landed long-term movie contracts on the basis of their success in it. Alas, unlike its stage stars The Last Mile itself didn’t attract the attention of a major studio; instead the movie rights ended up at Sono Art-World Wide Pictures, a studio whose founders had the rotten timing to start it just as the Depression was also starting, so it led a precarious existence for four years (1929 to 1933) before finally expiring.
While it lasted it produced some surprisingly compelling films, including its first release, The Great Gabbo, a prestigious musical/suspense film directed by James Cruze and starring Erich von Stroheim as an unbalanced ventriloquist (it anticipated William Goldman’s novel Magic by five decades in positing that the ventriloquist would confide his deepest secrets to his dummy and ultimately develop the delusion that the thing was really alive); The Death Kiss, a murder mystery set in a Hollywood studio and effectively using color tints and tones; A Study in Scarlet, a Sherlock Holmes mystery with Reginald Owen in the lead and Anna May Wong as a fascinating femme fatale; and Deluge, an apocalyptic film which World Wide didn’t last long enough to release (the company’s executors sold it to RKO and RKO promoted it as the next production of the effects team behind King Kong — who’d had nothing to do with it).
Unfortunately, World Wide didn’t have access to Tracy or Gable — or the one actor in 1932 who would have been absolutely right for “Killer” Mears, James Cagney — instead they had to make do with Preston Foster, though — surprise! — Foster, usually a terminally bland and dull actor, stepped into “Killer” Mears’ skin and gave the performance of his lifetime. One innovation of The Last Mile on stage was its simple set — just a row of prison cells across the stage, representing Death Row at a major prison — and World Wide’s production people (no art director is credited but Ralph M. DeLacy is listed as set decorator) kept the basic outline of that set, though they arranged the cells in an arc instead of a straight line, probably for more interesting camera angles. The Last Mile deals with a group of convicts on Death Row — often identified not by their names or even by their numbers in the overall prison population, but by the numbers of their cells on Death Row — including one recent arrival, Richard Walters (Howard Phillips), who we definitely learn is innocent (we get a flashback showing how he was accused of murdering his partner in a gas station — the partner had overdrawn the station’s accounts and Walters was determined to get rid of it; two robbers stuck up the station and the partner was killed in a struggle for the gun; but the police and prosecutors didn’t believe there’d been any outside robbers at all and Walters was tried, convicted and sentenced to death) and who’s unfortunately played as the same sort of milquetoast Phillips Holmes played in an otherwise equally tough prison drama from the period, The Criminal Code.
The others on Death Row are One, a.k.a. Joe Berg (George E. Stone), who gets executed in an early scene (he’s Jewish, and so the clergyman who comforts him in his final minutes is a rabbi, played by Edward Van Sloan — who’s actually quite effective, though given the horror-film roles Sloan is most famous for, the moment he starts speaking Hebrew one expects the Golem to come to life); Two, a.k.a. Sonny Jackson (Hallelujah star Daniel L. Haynes, who for the second time in his film career got to play a character of real depth and complexity — an ultra-rare privilege for African-American actors in Hollywood in the 1930’s, even though here as in Hallelujah one can’t escape the fact that Paul Robeson, whom Haynes had understudied in the Broadway production of Show Boat, could have played it even better); Three, a.k.a. Fred Mayer (Al Hill); Six, a.k.a. D’Amoro (Noel Madison, later wasted in dreary films like Cocaine Fiends and The Black Raven); Seven, a.k.a. Kirby (Alan Roscoe); and Eight, a.k.a. Eddie Werner (Paul Fix), whose low moans and babblings of hideous and tasteless poetry about his situation lead us to realize he’s crazy, though through much of the film Mears is convinced he’s just faking insanity so they won’t execute him. (It isn’t specified in the film, but I believe the law then was as it is now on that subject — since the idea is that the condemned person must be aware of the moral wrongness of his or her crime when the execution takes place, an insane person cannot be executed.)
Midway through the film Mears (whose cell number is four — Walters, next to him, is five) grabs a gun from a guard and starts a riot on Death Row, letting out all the other prisoners on the block (except Werner, whom only then does Mears realize is really crazy), holding the guards hostage and threatening to kill them all unless the warden, Frank Lewis (Frank Sheridan), gives them a car and allows them to leave the prison. The priest, Father O’Connor (Alec B. Francis), attempts to intervene and nearly becomes a hostage himself, Mears kills at least two guards and finally the superior numbers and firepower of the authorities win out and Mears finally gives up with a line of bravado Foster pulls off surprisingly well even though it’s much more James Cagney’s usual territory as an actor: knowing that as soon as he opens the door the guards are going to train their machine guns on him and mow him down, Mears says, “I think I’ll go get a little air.” The Last Mile was scripted by Seton I. Miller (though I suspect he added little to Wexley’s play except a flashback sequence) and it begins with a written foreword by Lewis E. Lawes, then warden at Sing Sing (whose own book of memoirs, 20,000 Years at Sing Sing, was turned into a movie by Warners in 1933 starring Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis in their only film together), that makes it clear that the filmmakers (and probably Wexley as well) saw The Last Mile as a didactic morality play against capital punishment:
“The Last Mile is more than a story of prison and of the condemned. To me it is a story of those men within barred cells, crushed mentally, physically and spiritually between unrelenting forces of man-made laws and man-fixed death. And justly or unjustly found guilty, are they not the victims of man’s imperfect conventions, upon which he has erected a social structure of doubtful security? What is society’s responsibility for ever-increasing murders? What shall be done with the murderers? The Last Mile does not pretend to give an answer. Society must find its own solution. But murder on the heels of murder is not that solution.”
Though there are individual scenes that betray the piece’s origins as a stage play — especially the pantomimes the actors do when shot; they register death agonies and fall down in highly stylized, stagy ways that would work in live theatre but look phony on screen — for the most part The Last Mile is an effective movie. The director was Sam Bischoff, who worked on over 400 films but primarily as a producer (a role he also served here); this is his only directorial credit, but on the strength of it it’s clear he had a real flair as a filmmaker. Rather than “open up” the play (except for the added flashback sequence showing Walters pre-conviction), Bischoff uses the resources of cinema to make it more intense, more claustrophobic. He shoots much of the movie in tight, intense close-ups of the convicts, bringing us into their world and slowing down time so we get the feeling of the mindlessness and monotony of prison life — much the way Howard Hawks did in The Criminal Code and a far cry from the tough, slam-bang action with which Warners filled their prison pictures. The film also has virtually no music — a plus, I think; rather than having our emotional reactions guyed by a thundering score we’re left on our own to figure out how we feel about these people, and whether whatever crimes they might have committed (which we’re very carefully kept in the dark about — Walters, the innocent man, is the only one of the cons whose backstory we get) justify what society is putting them through, not only the actual executions but what Victor Hugo called “the torture of hope,” the way in which reprieves, stays and pardons are dangled in front of them so they’re never sure just how much longer they have to live and whether the currently “set” date for their executions will indeed be the day they die.
Though there was an even better movie on the same theme made at RKO five years later — We Who Are About to Die, based on a memoir by David Lamson (who actually served 13 months on Death Row for the murder of his wife until he was exonerated) and also starring Preston Foster, albeit as a police detective who works with the innocent man’s girlfriend to exonerate him rather than as an inmate himself — The Last Mile is tough, uncompromising (except for the rather sticky scene at the end in which Walters, wounded in the gun battle, receives word at the end that he’s been exonerated — police found a watch stolen from him on the body of one of the robbers, who was killed while fleeing from the scene of another crime — and gets his pardon while recovering in bed) and utterly undated in the issues it raises. It was remade in 1959 with Mickey Rooney, of all people, as “Killer” Mears (now that would be a sight to see!), and it could do with another version today with only minimal updating.