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There is plenty of action in 'Riot in Cell Block 11,' which is brilliantly intensified by the psychological dramas of Don Siegel's first important film.

DVD Review: ‘Riot in Cell Block 11’ (Criterion Collection)

cell block 11Back in the antenna TV days, most regions had a channel whose big draw was the movie of the week. Horror films with a Vampira or Count Floyd-type character were big, as were those introduced by a prominent local celebrity. In the very early ’80s, the Seattle television station KCPQ hired the noted director Stanley Kramer to do this job after he retired from Hollywood, and moved to the area. I was in my late teens at the time, and can credit Kramer for introducing me to such films as his own Judgement at Nuremburg (1961) The Hustler  (1961), Citizen Kane (1940), and Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954).

Those movies all made a big impression on me, and when VCRs became affordable a little later, I made it my mission to seek these films out and really get to know them. The most elusive of the bunch was Riot in Cell Block 11, which I have not seen since that one time, way back in 1982.  I had all but given up on it, until I found out that it was being issued on DVD this month, as part of the Criterion Collection.

In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that Kramer introduced Riot in Cell Block 11, as it is a “liberal” film, and he was a proudly liberal director. Watching it again all these years later, I see what it was that so entranced me. It is not so much that Riot is one of the greatest movies ever made, (although it is very good), but that it is just so very different from what one would expect.

The plot is pretty straight-forward. The conditions in the prison are so atrocious that the prisoners riot to get the public’s attention. What is so unusual about this picture are the shades of grey. There are clearly “good” prisoners and “bad” prisoners, and the same holds true with the authorities. The warden has been fighting his bosses about the facilities for years, and his battles continue even as the riot rages around him.

One of the biggest issues is that cell block 11 was condemned two years earlier by the state, yet the prisoners are still being housed in it. Another is that  “the crazies” are mixed in with the general population. These are the mentally unbalanced men who belong in a mental ward, not a prison. Producer Walter Wanger and director Don Siegel both called Riot a “liberal film,” so that is where the term originates. It is one I do not agree with though. Moving men out of a condemned building, and putting the mentally ill in an institution does not strike me as being soft on criminals. It just makes sense.

As one would expect from a movie with the word “riot” in the title, there is plenty of action, and this element is brilliantly intensified by the psychological dramas. Don Siegel’s name is nowhere near as famous as Steven Spielberg’s or Francis Ford Coppola’s is, but he is the man behind such classics as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Coogan’s Bluff (1968), Dirty Harry (1971), and Escape from Alcatraz (1979).

Although Siegel had a few movies under his belt before Riot, he agrees with Peter Bogdonovich that this is his “first important film.” As Chris Fujiwara puts it in the essay that accompanies edition, “[Riot] is the first film to reveal the deep sense of violent, unresolvable contradiction that would animate the director’s greatest work.”

There are a number of scenes that illustrate Fujiwara’s point, but there is one very late in the picture that really does it for me. The prisoners have four guards as hostages, and keeping them alive is the warden’s (Emile Meyer) top priority. The two sides are at a stalemate, but the warden and the prisoner’s leader Dunn (Neville Brand) agree that no actions will be taken by either side until they resume talking the next day. But the next thing you know, the state police are taking matters in their own hands by setting dynamite charges in the walls. When the prisoners hear what the police are doing, they tie the guards to the pipe that runs right in front of that wall. The Colonel (Robert Osterlon) is a decorated World War II hero who is behind bars, and is the only voice of reason among them. When he objects to the guards being tied to the pipe, Dunn decks him then puts him there too.

This is one of those moments where Riot in Cell Block 11 seems as current as today’s news. If the guards are to be killed, it will be by their own brothers in arms. The situation is like a preview of what is ahead for the country, over Civil Rights, the war in Vietnam, and so much more. The ways in which the conflicts are resolved are so ironic that I was reminded of a Greek tragedy. In just 80 minutes, Siegel and a cast of near-unknowns take us on an unforgettable journey.

The DVD extras are audio-only, which is unusual for Criterion. The most substantial of these is a one-hour NBC radio program from March 1953 titled The Challenge of Our Prisons. The show features journalists Peg and Walter McGraw discussing the problems in the nation’s prison system, which was evidently a hot topic in the early ’50s. Note that the radio show predates the film by a year.

The remaining two supplemental features are both readings by Kristoffer Tabori who is Don Siegel’s son. In the first of these, he reads excerpts from Siegel’s autobiography A Siegel Film that pertain to Riot. (25:06). The second reading is from Don Siegel: Director by Stuart Kaminsky, this is also an excerpt focusing on the film (13:00). Finally, there is an audio commentary track featuring film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein.

It has been 32 years since I first caught Riot in Cell Block 11, and I have wanted to see it again mainly to see if it really is as good as I remember it being. I believe it is, and hope that as part of the Criterion Collection, a new generation of would-be film critics might see this great movie, and dig deeper in to the career of Don Siegel. He did some remarkable work, and the great stuff began right here.

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