Riot in Cell Block 11 grew out of producer Walter Wanger’s personal experience. In 1951, Wanger spent four months in prison for shooting Jennings Lang; an agent he believed was having an affair with his wife, the beautiful actress Joan Bennett. Wanger was appalled at the conditions prisoners were expected to live in. Deeply affected by it, he was prompted to make a film about it. Don Siegel agreed to direct the film over an eight week period for a flat fee of $100,000, while Richard Collins (perhaps known for his work on television shows like Bonanza and Matlock), wrote the screenplay.
Shot on location in California’s infamous Folsom Prison and using actual inmates as extras, Wanger and Siegel went without big name stars, instead, handing the reins to a group of talented character actors who seemed dedicated to appearing as prisoners, and creating a sense of realism from start to finish.
The film opens with the statement that prison riots are sweeping across the country and the fault lies with the short-sighted neglect of the penal institutions by the political leaders. As we make our way into Cell Block 11, tensions are mounting. Frustrated by barely livable conditions, and abusive guards, the inmates in solitary confinement seize four guards and quickly take control of the entire building. They trash everything they can get their hands on, and punish any inmates who refuse to participate. The angry and aggressive James Dunn (Neville Brand) takes the lead in negations with the prison, outlining demands and facing the press.
Warden Reynolds (Emile Meyer) is sympathetic to the prisoners, even noting that their demands are reforms he has called for. However, the politically minded Commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen) and the Governor are much less concerned. Haskell decides to confront the prisoners, believing that toughness will force them to back down. Unmoved, one of the prisoners stabs him in the shoulder. As the standoff drags on, and tension builds, Dunn loses his leadership position to Crazy Mike Carnie (Leo Gordon), a violent madman looking for any reason to kill the guards. Fearing a bloodbath, Warden Reynolds begs the Governor to save lives by signing the prisoners’ list of demands. The Governor decides to wait. Prison officials plan to storm the building after blowing up a cell block wall with dynamite; when word of the plan reaches the inmates, the move their hostages directly into harm’s way. Can the situation be resolved before guards and inmates alike are killed?
While there are a few beatings, and other assorted dust-ups, Riot in Cell Block 11 feels more violent then it is because of the exemplary work by the actors. None of these guys are pin-ups, and look the part. The gravel-voiced Neville Brand was a highly decorated World War II veteran, having received both the Silver Star and Purple Heart, among other commendations. Brand’s portrayal of Dunn is angry with a violent streak, but he also shows a surprising sense of responsibility. He forces the warden and the Governor to bargain under the watchful eye of the press. When he shows the press the chain and rubber hose guards use to beat inmates, he’s trying to get the message out. Dunn may be tough, but he’s naïve enough to believe that getting the press to listen will force a change. Leo Gordon had actually served a five year sentence in prison for armed robbery, which nearly got him barred from filming at Folsom; yet another reason realism isn’t an issue.
Walter Wanger certainly got the message across about the need for prison reform, and Don Siegel, who had directed fairly modest films up to that point, got a big push from the project, and would find himself working on increasingly bigger pictures with stars such as Elvis Presley, Steve McQueen, and Lee Marvin. Eventually, he would direct a total of five films starring Clint Eastwood including: Dirty Harry, Two Mules for Sister Sara, and Escape from Alcatraz.
Presented in the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Criterion has turned in a stellar 1080p transfer. Though there are a few specks here and there, the print isn’t problematic. Detail is impressive considering the age of the film. Contrast is quite good, with whites never blooming too much, while black levels are strong. There are no compression artifacts to speak of, nor is edge enhancement or DNR in evidence. This is simply a clean, film-like presentation.
The English language LPCM Mono track is obviously limited by its source material, but it sounds rather good considering its age. Dialogue is clear; while I did detect a very slight hiss in the background, it didn’t interfere with the viewing experience. There’s no noticeable distortion and the sound effects are clear, and have surprising depth. The score by Herschel Burke Gilbert (It’s a Wonderful Life) heightens the tension, and adds to the dramatic atmosphere.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary: Recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2014, film scholar discusses the production of Riot in Cell Block 11, its visual style, and unique narrative qualities. Reviews of the film, the filmmakers’ vision and more.
- Excerpt from Don Siegel: Director (Audio w/ Still Gallery HD, 13:01) Siegel’s son Kristoffer Tabori reads excerpts from the chapter on Riot in Cell Block 11 from Stuart Kaminsky’s 1974 book, Don Siegel: Director. It includes an interview with actor Neville Brand.
- Don Siegel on Riot in Cell Block 11 (HD, 25:07) Kristoffer Tabori reads a chapter on Riot in Cell Block 11 from his father’s autobiography, A Siegel Film.
- The Challenge of Our Prisoners (HD, 59:08) Originally aired in March 1953, these are audio excerpts from journalists Peg and Walter McGraw’s NBC radio documentary series The Challenge of Our Prisons.
- Booklet: An illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, a 1954 article by co-producer Walter Wanger, and a 1974 tribute to Don Siegel by filmmaker Sam Peckinpah.
- DVD of the film containing all extras.