Judge Daryl Loomis started a riot after his school ran out of chocolate milk.
You are caught in the scorching center of a prison riot!
In the early 1950s, Americans were rocked when riot after riot broke out in prisons across the country. Nobody was interested in looking at proper living conditions for prisoners, but the headlines that came in the wake of these incidents mashed it into the public's face. Producer Walter Wanger knew this, but also knew all too well about life on the inside from a stint after trying to kill the lover of his wife, actress Joan Bennett. This was minimum security, too, so his disgust only grew with higher security facilities and wanted to make a movie to describe this life to the public. Luckily for him, 1952 saw the largest and most famous of those prison riots at Jackson State Prison in Michigan. Ripping his story straight from that incident, he and director Don Siegel (Escape from Alcatraz) went to Folsom State Prison and, with the help of real life prisoners and guards, came up with Riot in Cell Block 11, one of the greatest prison movies to ever emerge from Hollywood.
Facts of the Case
They may not be good men, but even prisoners deserve basic rights. Eventually, the brutal conditions and harsh treatment by the guards have pushed the inmates of Folsom State Prison over the line and they snap, with rioting breaking out all over the cell block. Led by career criminal James Dunn (Neville Brand, Eaten Alive), they take the guards hostage and demand better treatment, but a power struggle among the inmates threatens to escalate the violence into murder.
As somebody who values efficiency in his movies, Riot in Cell Block 11 is something of a dream movie. Its title tells you exactly what you're going to get and delivers exactly that, no more and no less. It's short and extremely tight, as Siegel gets to the riot after only about twenty minutes and that's all it is. It's also all that it needs to be, as the drama inherent in a prison hostage situation seems pretty obvious to me. Maybe more importantly, he completely removed all of the junk that slows down genre movies, stuff like backstories and subplots. You know the prisoners and guards have families and parents, and they are mentioned on occasion, but we never see them and they're mostly only a part of a conversation, never the subject of it. We don't even have the inmates declare their innocence at any point.
The story is stripped to its bare essentials, and really, the only thing that remotely resembles a subplot the movie's message. It's a very clear and pointed indictment of the prison system that is different today, but probably not much better and, certainly, the public doesn't want to think about the issue any more today than they did in 1954. Much of the story is taken directly from the Jackson Prison riot. Names got changed and dialog got made up, of course, but the important characters are transferred and most of the specific events actually happened, even the weird stuff.
The tight, narrowly focused story is brought to life by the setting and characters. In using Folsom State Prison itself (it was shot in an abandoned emergency cell block on the site) and utilizing the actual guards and prisoners as extras, there is a definite sense of truth to the material. The quick and dirty filming style only adds to this, making it feel as close to a documentary as I've seen in a long time. And it's all brought to life by Neville Brand, whose unique intensity is the perfect fit for the role. He has both the charisma to be an absolute natural as the leader, as well as the toughness (he was one of the most decorated killing machines in American history during WWII) to be perfectly believable giving or taking a punch. Really, all the performances are top notch, with special note to Leo Gordon (My Name Is Nobody) as Crazy Mike Carnie. Gordon had done time at San Quentin and the warden forced him to be separated every morning and searched. It probably contributed to the anger on display in his performance.
Really, in every way, Riot in Cell Block 11 is a brilliant film. Tight and tense, with fantastic performances, anybody who likes a good prison movie owes it to themselves to see the movie. It doesn't get much better than this.
Riot in Cell Block 11 as the next in the line of the Criterion Collection in a Blu-ray/DVD combo that is up to the usual Criterion standards. The image looks fantastic, but there is a question about what aspect ratio the movie was intended to be. They found exhibitions everywhere in between 1.37:1 and 1.85:1 and chose the thinner ratio for their transfer, which I think makes the movie look more claustrophobic, but in any case, the transfer is beautiful. Contrast and black levels are next to perfect and, while there are a few tiny instances of damage to the original print, almost every instance has been restored. The single channel Maser Audio track is good, as well, but not nearly as spectacular as the image. Still it's totally noise-free with as much dynamic range as you can hope from a single channel track.
Extras aren't as extensive as some of Criterion's offerings, but what they've included is excellent.
It starts with a highly interesting audio commentary with film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein, who has all sorts of good information and stories about the movie, Don Siegel, and Walter Wanger. It's an info-first talk, but this is more entertaining than many of the more scholarly commentaries.
Next, two book excerpts read by Siegel's son, Kristoffer Tabori. The first is from Stuart Kaminsky's Don Siegel: Director and the second is from Siegel's autobiography, A Siegel Film. Together, they run about half an hour and both feature plenty of solid quotes from Siegel about Riot and other stories, notably about Sam Peckinpah, who was Siegel's PA for this, his very first movie.
The last extra on the disc is an hour long excerpt from a 1953 radio documentary, The Challenge of Our Prisons, which is a direct look at the Jackson Prison riot and features interviews with key figures in the event, including the ring leader. It's not particularly artful storytelling, but it's an interesting piece nonetheless. We also get the customary essay booklet inside, which is always welcome.
If Riot in Cell Block 11 isn't the best prison movie ever made, it's pretty dang close. It's short and tight with absolutely zero frivolity. Brilliantly written and acted, with a strong, stripped down, documentary style, it's fantastically entertaining and impactful at the same time. There's really nothing to complain about here and, with a very strong Blu-ray, this is highly recommended.
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