Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11
One of the toughest, most realistic movies about the prison system when it hit theaters in 1954, “Riot in Cell Block 11” still stands up as a hard, fast-paced picture with an important message.
Filmed in a nearly documentary style in California’s Folsom State Prison by director Don Siegel, an action expert, this 80-minute movie is almost non-stop action, and where there is a momentary lull in the action, there is high tension.
In the film, prisoners at the breaking point due to poor conditions, overpower their guards and seize one of the blocks – or corridors – of cells.
Leading the revolt are two of the toughest actors ever in the movies: Neville Brand as the brains, and Leo Gordon as the muscle backing him up. Gordon who was in many movies and television shows, had actually served time in prison, and, from what I have read, could scare the crap out of almost anyone on any production. Brand, who was often cast as a thug in the 1940s and 1950s in films like "D.O.A.," here gets to play a tough guy with brains and a sense of justice.
The prisoners hold the guards hostage and issue a set of demands to the governor. The demands include more space in the overcrowded facility; removal of the criminally insane to a separate cell block; and separation of young offenders with light sentences from the hardened lifers.
Understanding the issues of the prisoners of Cell Block 11, the warden, played by Emile Meyer, is well aware of the problems, but can do little about them. Policy is set by state legislators and they and the governor refuse to spend any money to correct the conditions. Caught in a difficult situation, the warden must maintain order, contain the riot, and negotiate with the prisoners while dealing with a hard-nosed flunky sent by the governor, played by Frank Faylen. Faylen, here in a serious role, was a comic actor who played Dobie Gillis’ father on TV. Emile Meyer, often cast as tough ruthless characters, like the corrupt cop in “The Sweet Smell of Success” and the vice principal of the high school in “Blackboard Jungle,” gets a complex part to play here and does an excellent job.
“Riot in Cell Block 11” is not only a terrific action movie, it addresses realistic problems. And, as far as I could see, there is not a bad scene or a wasted frame of film in the entire movie.
Don Siegel did a great job on this, one of his earlier projects as a director. He later made five films with Clint Eastwood, including “Dirty Harry,” and “Escape from Alcatraz,” and he was a mentor to Eastwood in the actor’s early efforts as a director.
(For more posts on film and TV, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)