Riot in Cell Block 11

Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Richard Collins
Stars: Neville Brand (James V. Dunn), Emile Meyer (Warden Reynolds), Frank Faylen (Commissioner Haskell), Leo Gordon (Crazy Mike Carnie), Robert Osterloh (The Colonel), Paul Frees (Monroe), Don Keefer (Reporter), Alvy Moore (Gator), Dabbs Greer (Schuyler), Whit Bissell (Snader), James Anderson (Acton), Carleton Young (Guard Captain Barrett)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1954
Country: U.S.
Riot in Cell Block 11 Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD Combo
Riot in Cell Block 11Although we often think of the 1950s in Hollywood as an era of great conservatism, with filmmakers and producers quaking in the shadow of McCarthyism while churning out Eisenhower-era-friendly entertainment in the form of splashy Technicolor musicals, widescreen Biblical epics, and star-powered romantic comedies, this was also the era in which socially progressive films made a substantial comeback. Often referred to as “social problem films,” these productions directly tackled pressing social, cultural, and political issues in a way that seems surprising even today. The late 1940s were awash in such films—for example, Elia Kazan dealt with anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement and then not just racism, but the taboo notion of “passing for white” in Pinky (1949), while Mark Robson (under the guidance of producer Stanley Kramer) dramatized racial discord via the war film in Home of the Brave (1949).

Despite heavily televised HUAC inquisition into Hollywood, the industry’s blacklisting of hundreds of people, and the subsequent chill on left-leaning topics, some filmmakers and producers continued to press onward by using the silver screen as a mirror to reflect society’s pressing problems. Numerous filmmakers centered their films around the rising fear of juvenile delinquency (most famously Nicholas Ray’s 1954 Rebel Without a Cause), while even braver filmmakers like Otto Preminger denied the strictures of the Production Code by dealing with drug addiction in films like The Man With the Golden Arm (1954). Frequently neglected in the oft-cited list of the ’50s social problem films is Riot in Cell Block 11, which, by entrapping us in a story about a prison riot (literally—the camera never goes much beyond the outside gates), forces us to recognize the various problems facing the penal system, particularly state and federal cutbacks that left the prisons understaffed and, in some instances, inhumane.

The story originated with producer Walter Wanger, who had spent time in prison himself in the late 1940s for shooting his wife’s lover in a fit of jealous rage. He served four months for aggravated assault and left the minimum-security prison where he served his time shocked and appalled at the conditions under which prisoners had to live. He enlisted the services of veteran screenwriter Richard Collins, who was coming off a four-year blacklist due to his activity in the Communist Party in the 1930s and his refusal to testify before HUAC (he later consented to name names, something that, like director Leo McCarey, he later regretted). And to direct the film he selected Don Siegel, a tough firebrand who already had seven features to his name over the past 10 years, but hadn’t directed a truly great film yet. Riot in Cell Block 11 is arguably his first close-to-greatness production. Siegel, with his innate sense of cinematic intensity and how to deploy violence with both visual and thematic heft, keeps the film’s style relatively simple and straightforward, which allows the complexities of the situation at hand to take center-stage.

The story unfolds with great speed and economy as we are introduced to a cross-section of inmates—who are all a mixture of the good, the bad, and the ugly—serving time in the solitary wing of a large state prison (the production made great use of an otherwise empty wing of Folsom State Prison as their set and employed real inmates and guards as extras for added verisimilitude). The eventual leader of the revolt is James Dunn (Neville Brand), a square-jawed murderer who recognizes that no one will listen to his grievances with the penal system unless he gets the media’s attention (the film opens with newsreel footage of actual prison riots that had rocked the country in the early 1950s, thus establishing further realism). And what better way to get the media’s attention than to break out, stage a riot, and take the guards hostage, which is exactly what he does with the help of most of the prisoners in solitary, particularly “Crazy Mike” Carnie (Leo Gordon), a hulking sociopath who works as Dunn’s muscle (not that he really needs any). Among the dissenters are a man known as “The Colonel” (Robert Osterloh), a decorated war veteran serving time for manslaughter resulting from a drunken bar brawl. The Colonel is reluctant to join in, especially since his parole is just around the corner, but he eventually concedes to helping Dunn and the others write up their grievances.

Dealing with the riot are Warden Reynolds (Frank Faylen), who is hard but decent and honest and, as a result, is willing to listen to the rioters’ demands and do anything he can to avoid bloodshed (he is very much the opposite of Hume Cronyn’s sadistic prison warden in Brute Force, another visually dynamic and violent prison film released the following year). Much less decent and honest is Commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen), who arrives as the emissary for the governor’s unwillingness to give in to the inmates’ demands out of fear of setting a precedent for future prison riots. The warden is particularly sympathetic to the rioters because most of their grievances are issues that he has been speaking about for years, begging the legislature for more money and better treatment. He rightly recognizes that prisoners have never not rioted because of being mistreated.

As this brief plot synopsis makes clear, Riot in Cell Block 11 is a film brimming with conflicting points of view and equally valid arguments that force us to consider all of the moral, ethical, and economic issues involved in a society locking away some of its citizens. The film goes out of its way to ensure that neither the rioters nor the guards are portrayed as abjectly evil. Some of the inmates, particularly Carnie, are frighteningly violent, but much is made of the fact that he is a sociopath who belongs in a state hospital, rather than a prison. And, even though the opening newsreel footages makes note of prisoners being beaten by guards, all of the guards in the film are essentially decent men just trying to make a living, and the warden is portrayed as fair-minded and empathetic, rather than cynical and harsh (which better describes Commissioner Haskell).

Nevertheless, the film must be brought to some kind of resolution, and Collins manages to devise an impressive final 10 minutes that allows everyone to “win” on some level while staying true to the Production Code’s dictate that crime should never pay. Most impressive is the fact that, despite some characters declaring “victory,” the overall sense you get at the end of the film is that there is no victory to be had in such a situation where both sides are simultaneously right and wrong. The film’s underlying humanity, which is perhaps its most impressive asset, is that it portrays the film’s potentially rote stock of characters as fully realized human beings. While there is certainly right and wrong, what Riot in Cell Block 11 makes us realize is that some situations make it virtually impossible to fully disentangle to two.

Riot in Cell Block 11 Criterion Collection Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioDolby Digital 1.0 monaursl
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein
  • Excerpts from the director’s 1993 autobiography, A Siegel Film, read by his son Kristoffer Tabori
  • Excerpts from Stuart Kaminsky’s 1974 book Don Siegel: Director, read by Tabori
  • Excerpts from the 1953 NBC radio documentary series The Challenge of Our Prisons
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, a 1954 article by producer Walter Wanger, and a 1974 tribute to Siegel by filmmaker Sam Peckinpah
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 22, 2014

    From what I can tell, Riot in Cell Block 11 hasn’t been seen on home video since the VHS era, so getting to see it in Criterion’s new 2K digital restoration is that much more of a treat. The cinematography by Russell Harlan (To Kill a Mockingbird) tends to lean heavier on shades of gray than contrasty black and white (with the repeated exception of the stark black steel doors that line the cellblock), and the transfer, which was made from the original 35mm camera negative, represents the film’s look very well. The grayscale allows for an impressive level of detail throughout the film, from the craggy surfaces of the stone walls inside the prison to the rough texture of the inmates’ clothes. The film is presented in the Academy Aspect ratio even though Criterion’s research uncovered that some theaters projected it matted at 1.85:1. Because the film was made during a transitional era when widescreen was still a novel and not entirely understood concept, it is not surprising that it had a variable theatrical aspect ratio. Looking at the film in 1.37:1, it looks right, without notably excessive headroom, and I imagine it was shot with the idea that it would be screened in the Academy ratio with room for matting if desired (it would have been interesting if Criterion had presented it in multiple aspect ratios, as they did with On the Waterfront). The monaural soundtrack is presented in uncompressed Dolby Digital monaural transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm optical soundtrack negative. It is generally clean and clear, although there is some ambient hiss during the opening newsreel footage (which is probably inherent to the source material and meant to differentiate it aurally from the movie proper).

    There are quite a few supplements on Criterion’s Riot in Cell Block 11 Blu-ray, and interestingly all of them are audio. The disc gives us an excellent new audio commentary by film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein, author of Walter Wanger: Film Independent; 25 minutes of excerpts from the director’s 1993 autobiography A Siegel Film and 13 minutes of excerpts from Stuart Kaminsky’s 1974 book Don Siegel: Director, both of which are read by Siegel’s son Kristoffer Tabori (the latter is heard over a succession of film stills while the former simply plays over the static menu); and nearly an hour excerpted from the 1953 NBC radio documentary series The Challenge of Our Prisons. The insert booklet includes an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, a 1954 article by producer Walter Wanger, and a 1974 tribute to Siegel by filmmaker Sam Peckinpah.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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