Twenty-five years before he guided Clint Eastwood in his Escape from Alcatraz, director Don Siegel took a trip to Folsom State Prison to paint a less-than-pretty picture of the current standards convicts of the time had to deal with. The reason? Well, mainly – and you’re gonna love this – Riot in Cell Block 11 was produced as a result of producer Walter Wagner spending time behind bars after shooting an agent whom he suspected was having an affair with his wife, the one and only Joan Bennett.
So, script ripe with social commentary about the penal system in hand, Siegel and company filmed directly alongside the prison’s guards and inmates themselves – relying not only on the aforementioned for their assistance, but also casting them in the background as, fittingly enough, guards and inmates. Siegel also brought in a total newbie named Sam Peckinpah to serve as a third assistant casting director. As it turned out, Peckinpah’s father was a rather famous judge in Northern California, and having his name attached to the production was enough for the then-warden of Folsom Prison to allow the picture to be made on-location.
And what a picture it turned out to be. Effectively erasing the imagery left behind by the industry’s handsome tough guys of yesteryear, Siegel’s representation of the big house was as true-to-life as it could be. Siegel also expunged the Hollywood pretty boy formulae by casting some of the not-quite-as-handsome faces in this Allied Artist B picture, with veteran heavy Neville Brand as James V. Dunn – the psychotic brains behind Cell Block 11’s plan to get the world to hear their plea for better living conditions. Patrick Swayze prototype Leo Gordon (whom Siegel later declared the scariest man he ever met) ups the ante as Crazy Mike Carnie, an even crazier bastard who has his eyes on killing off his least favorite “screws” (guards) more than anything else.
And speaking of screws, character actor Whit Bissell plays one of the more brutal guards here, while voice actor extraordinaire Paul Frees offers up one of his rare onscreen roles as a greenhorn guard who was in the wrong block at the wrong time. Robert Osterloh acts as the voice of reason for the semi-organized inmates on the inside, while Emile Meyer is perhaps one of the coolest wardens ever committed to film, and who spends most of his time arguing with an aggressive Frank Faylen, whom the governor has sent in to fix that whole annoying riot problem.
Making way for the very type of gritty prison flick we are now used to in today’s day and age, Riot in Cell Block 11 was a huge success for Allied Artists in 1954- who had only recently abolished the previous Monogram Pictures banner in lieu of their new moniker – and continued to play the feature in theaters well into the late ’50s. Extra special note goes out to the casting of character actors Dabbs Greer and Alvy Moore – who usually played country bumpkins, preachers, or everyday businessmen – but who were instead given a chance to beef it up as baddies here. The great William Schallert has a minor role as a reporter, as does Don Keefer, and Thomas Browne Henry has a cameo as the governor who is far too busy to worry about the lesser elements of society.
The Criterion Collection’s people have done a masterful job of presenting this minor, decidedly overlooked classic to Blu-ray here. Wisely opting to present the feature in its open matte form (as opposed to the slightly cropped exhibition it would have received in theaters, and with most video labels nowadays, who are more than content of making their features 16×9 friendly even when they don’t necessarily need to be), Riot in Cell Block 11 is given about as crisp of a picture the film can possibly have without incorporating the dreaded Digital Noise Reduction process. And frankly, it doesn’t need any scrubbing; the black-and-white picture is pretty darn fantastic as-is, and boasts a deep, well-balanced, entirely natural look all the way ’round. According to the included booklet, the transfer was made from the original 35mm camera negative, and an extensive process was employed to physically remove any unwanted dirt, debris, or iffy spots.
In addition to a solid video presentation, Criterion’s sole LPCM 1.0 English audio offering is a very clear affair, and preserves the film’s original soundtrack. Optional (SDH) subtitles are included for the hearing impaired. Apart from the previously mentioned booklet, special features for this outstanding release include an audio commentary by film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein; audio excerpts from The Challenge of Our Prisoners, a vintage audio documentary that may have helped to inspire the views in the feature film; and two readings by Siegel’s son, Kristoffer Tabori, from the books Don Siegel: Director (by Stuart Kaminsky) and A Siegel Film (by the late Mr. Siegel himself).