Cinematic tough guy Don Siegel first exemplified himself as a director with vision with this razor sharp prison thriller, at once as a first-rate claustrophobic thriller but also as a critique of the inhumane conditions in US prison system at the time.
Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) dir. Don Siegel
Starring: Neville Brand, Emile Meyer, Frank Faylen
By Alan Bacchus
Looking back on the picture now the socio-political statement is slammed in our faces before the picture even begins. But the film is also a product of its time and should be judged in that context. In 1954, in the post war era, with the dream factory studio system waning there was a craving for stories about real-world concerns. Stanley Kramer’s films of the period, The Defiant Ones, On the Beach, and others put the message ahead of the story. The same can be said here. The opening moments feature documentary newsreel type footage depicting the rash of prison protest riots around the country.
So before the picture even starts we know the lesson and expect a socio-political education. That said Siegel’s direction and storytelling skills never fall into the didactic preachiness. Siegel orchestrates a razor-sharp tightly wound stand-off, almost entirely within the prison - a film which may have influenced future similar hostage thrillers such as The Taking of Pelham 123 or even Die Hard.
When the movie begins the scheme is already in motion from the prisoners. Led by the charismatic James Dunn, under cover of night, a number of guards escape their cells, beat down a few of the guards and manage to release all the prisoners from the block. But this is no ordinary escape, but a protest against the inhumane conditions of the prison. A classic hostage scenario emerges, a battle of wills between Dunn and his crew and the prison warden, the guards, the press and politicians who enter the fray with their own agenda.
Like the politicking outside the walls, within the crew, a similar power struggle of its own emerges. A faction who want blood and a faction who want appeasement and negotiation. Thus out of the initial prisoner-warden conflict emerges a complex political game which the prisoners cannot possible foresee or compete against.
The close quarters action as directed by Siegel is as tough as it gets for 1954. The fights, punches and beatings feel different in this film. Siegel fills out his cast within memorable faces, imposing figures who actually look like they could come from prison. No Hollywood leading men in this crowd. In particular Neville Brand as Dunn and Leo Gordon as his right hand man Mike Carnie, are utterly frightful as the prison leaders. And filming in the monumentally frightening stone-built structure of Folsom Prison adds even more authenticity to the picture.
Siegel admirably never lets us off the hook with a tradition studio ending. Tension maintained through to end, even at the moment of the prisoner’s great triumph, Siegel assuredly pulls the rug from under us with a classic film noir cynical ending.
Riot on Cell Block 11 is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection