This remake of The Last Mile has been updated nicely with a nice jazz score and the inmates and prison officials definitely fit the Fifties as opposed to the Twenties when it first appeared on Broadway. But the impact of this searing prison drama hasn't changed and Mickey Rooney stretches his considerable talent to the limit playing the lead of Killer Mears who leads the uprising of the death row inmates.
Mickey has some fast company among the people who've done this part. Spencer Tracy did it on Broadway and his performance there led to his original film contract with Fox. Clark Gable after doing some bit parts and extra work in silent films was spotted doing this in a touring company in Los Angeles which led to his MGM contract. And Preston Foster did it in the original screen version. Rooney's performance stands up to any of their's.
It's a simple plot, but the characters run deep. Before the big attempted breakout we get a character study of each of the inmates on Death Row. It takes a good actor to get himself noticed here though because the character of Killer Mears so dominates the film and the other inmates. These are men with nothing at all to lose, a lot like the inmates shown in The Green Mile. But of course they don't have a character like Mears to whip them in a frenzy when a guard slips and Mears gets the upper hand.
Being that the film is only on one set for 95% of the time, it's a small budget affair, hardly like Ben-Hur which came out the same year. Still Rooney's incredible performance should have merited Oscar consideration. He was nominated for films and performances not half as good as this.
Try to see both the Preston Foster and Mickey Rooney versions together. Too bad we can't see Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable in how they did the role. The Last Mile is timeless as long as we have capital punishment. I can see Russell Crowe doing Killer Mears easily in a 21st Century version.
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