Combustible Celluloid
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With: Neville Brand, Emile Meyer, Frank Faylen, Leo Gordon, Robert Osterloh, Paul Frees, Don Keefer, Alvy Moore, Dabbs Greer, Whit Bissell, James Anderson, Carleton Young, Harold J. Kennedy, William Schallert, Jonathan Hole
Written by: Richard Collins
Directed by: Don Siegel
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 80
Date: 05/03/2014

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Jail State

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's not often that a "B" movie gets the Criterion treatment on Blu-ray, but here is an early classic from the remarkable second-level career of Don Siegel, looking sharp and nasty in high-def. Riot in Cell Block 11 is brutal, muscling through its story below mainstream standards, but it's incredibly powerful, and -- in many ways -- real.

The movie began after producer Walter Wanger served time in prison for shooting a Hollywood agent he believed was sleeping with his wife, Joan Bennett. Upon his release, Wanger was apparently appalled by prison conditions and wanted to make an "issue" film to address it, but ended up making this combination drive-in flick instead.

That's thanks to Siegel, an action director whose sense of place was nearly unequalled in his time or any other. The movie starts with a kind of montage (Siegel's first job at Warner Bros.) explaining that several of the country's prisons have experienced riots against the horrible conditions inside. Now we come to our prison, and cell block 11, the place where they send the most troublesome criminals. One of them manages to fool a rookie guard, which leads to the convicts taking control.

Dunn (Neville Brand) takes charge, and enlists the respected "The Colonel" (Robert Osterloh) to help write up a list of demands. He reads it for the warden and the press; someone makes a remark that the warden (Emile Meyer) has made most of the same complaints himself over the years. Meanwhile, other cell blocks try to join the riot, the state police are called in, and crazy prisoner "Carnie" (Leo Gordon, a real-life ex-con) tries to take over.

The movie comes with a bittersweet conclusion, a victory with a failure mixed in, which is perfect for Siegel's tone. It's true that prisons needed reform, but also the convicts are the bad guys and cannot be allowed to win.

In spite of all the talking and the making of points, Siegel creates a movie that feels masculine and muscular. The men sweat and fight and run from one end of the prison to the other. There's no room for deep characters, but Siegel quickly establishes that some of the men use their brawn, some use their brains, and some use other things, like a sense of humor or a kind of fearless hysteria.

Siegel shot the film at the real-life Folsom prison, which must have added to its urgency and realism. Of course, Siegel shot many of his great movies in the Bay Area and in Northern California, so his work on Riot in Cell Block 11 helps establish a crucial pattern; not only was he a Hollywood outsider, he was a physical outsider as well.

I won't say that Riot in Cell Block 11 is Siegel's most entertaining movie, but it's one of his most powerful. The Criterion Collection has released a Blu-ray/DVD combo edition, with exceptional quality. There are audio recordings of Siegel's son reading excerpts from two Siegel biographies, as well as a radio documentary from the era about prison reform. Critic Chris Fujiwara provides the liner notes essay, and the booklet also includes a tribute to Siegel by Sam Peckinpah, and an article by Wanger. Film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein -- who wrote a biography of Wagner -- provides an informative, but dry, commentary track.

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