Peter Strauss is bad ass in this Michael Mann production that aired on ABC-TV on March 18, 1979. Like Sam Elliot bad assery. And in what the hell ever happened to scribe Patrick J. Nolan? How is this bad assery of script — which walked away with five awards, including three Emmys, and was the seventh-highest rating show of the week (the six higher ones were TV series; so this was the #1 rated TV movie for the week) — his only feature film writing credit?
More importantly: Why was this a TV movie? The quality across all the film disciplines is so high, this should have been a theatrical feature — and swept the Oscars.
Well, as it turns out, Patrick J. Nolan was a college English professor and the script languished on the shelf, as most optioned screenplays by unknown writers usually do (been there, done that). Then Peter Strauss, then a huge star courtesy of ABC-TV’s Rich Man, Poor Man (and commanding $200,000 per TV movie), was in the market do something “completely different.” And he discovered this script. (And he did the Star Wars-cum-Mad Max romp for Charles Band: Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. I dig it, but opinions vary.)
ABC-TV brought on a young Michael Mann*, who worked on commercials in England alongside Ridley Scott of Alien fame, and cut his teeth with episodes of the U.S. TV series Hawaii Five-O and Starsky and Hutch. And Mann was already up-to-speed on prison life courtesy of his uncredited re-writes alongside Dustin Hoffman for 1978’s Straight Time (it’s never about the on-screen credit: it’s about the work).
And, with that, Mann “punched up” Nolan’s script about Larry Murphy, a loner convicted of first degree murder serving a life sentence at Folsom Prison (where this was filmed) for shooting his father, which Murphy felt was a justifiable homicide because his father was raping his stepsister.
Now we’ve all seen our share of prison movies (we’ll mention the gold standards Escape from Alcatraz and The Shawshank Redemption) and know how inmates “do their hard time.” But Murphy, that the inmates nickname “Lickity Split,” loses himself by running. All day. Every day. All the time. And the prison psychologist (Geoffrey Lewis!) and warden (Billy Green Bush!) come to realize that Murphy’s obsession has resulted in his running at the Olympic level, thanks to the insights of the state’s award-winning track and field coach (Ed Lauter!).
What makes this all so special is that Nolan and Mann’s script eschews the usual sensationalism of prison movies (e.g., prison rape, riots, thuggery, stabbings, abusive guards, crooked wardens) and is, instead, a psychological study; a study of man at the lowest point in his life finding the strength to carry on, and how the compassion of others, can lift a man back up. It’s also a tale of how others can find their own victories — abet, vicariously — through others in the same predicament, who are not as strong to succeed beyond their surroundings. Success isn’t about money, prestige, power, or promotion: it’s about how you use your spirit and deal with the negativity of others . . . and “win.”
To say anymore would be plot-spoiling (okay, well, the late Brian Dennehy is the “yards” dickhead in this), but we will tell you this is the film that The Rolling Stones allowed Michael Mann to license an instrumental re-arrangement of “Sympathy for the Devil” for the film, which is used as the film’s theme song.
Watch his movie. Period. For it is bas-ass . . . and a bag o’ chips.
* We wax nostalgic over Michael Mann’s work with Tangerine Dream in our “Exploring: 10 Tangerine Dream Film Soundtracks,” where we discuss Mann’s Thief and The Keep.
There are more TV movies to be had with our “Week of Made for TV Movies,” “Lost TV Week,” “Son of Made for TV Movie Week” and “Grandson of Made for TV Movie Week” tribute spotlights to those films that, in many cases, are even better than the movies that played in theatres.