|Neville Brand & Leo Gordon|
are ready to take out some screws.
Are YOU ready?
Dir. Don Siegel Prd. Walter Wanger
Writ. Richard Collins
Starring: Neville Brand,
Emile Meyer, Frank Faylen, Leo Gordon
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Some movies are charged with the blood, sweat and tears of brutal shocking truth, a sense of genuine life experience infused into every frame of celluloid. Riot in Cell Block 11 is one of those pictures. It spits hatred in your eyes like venom and it doesn't take long before you're on the side of mean, hardened men fighting back at loathsome conditions and abuse.
The team responsible for this, one of the greatest prison pictures of all time, surely begins with producer Walter Wanger (surname pronounced "DANGER"). Wanger fought in World War I where he flew dangerous reconnaissance missions in the signal corps. He eventually got his taste for film when he was transferred to the propaganda department. When the war ended, Wanger, a well educated and highly literate young man with a love for theatre was hired by Paramount Pictures, served as the President of the Academy for seven years, moved to Columbia and also served occasional stints as an independent producer. His two loves were theatre-based comedies and musicals and dramas with a high degree of social commentary. He also loved working with directors who had a strong personal voice and Wanger's producing credits included John Ford's Stagecoach, Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street, Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Robert Wise's I Want To Live.
The impetus for Wanger to produce Riot in Cell Block 11 came after he blasted two shots into the leg and groin of Hollywood agent Jennings Lang whom he suspected was carrying on with his second wife Joan Bennett. Luckily for Wanger, he had the good sense to secure the famous scumbag lawyer Jerry Giesler who was able to get the producer a reduced sentence in jail with a plea of "temporary insanity". Given Wanger's experiences in stir and the fact that prison conditions had become so abominable in post-war America, the first movie he knew he wanted to make would be a prison picture that took the side of the beleaguered and abused convicts, many of whom were instituting large-scale riots to fight for better conditions.
Wanger secured ace-screenwriter Richard Collins, a former creative affairs executive, story doctor and long-standing member of the Communist Party which resulted in his being blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities. He returned to active duty in the movie business, like so many, he crawled back to HUAC and named names. To direct, Wanger selected Don Siegel who'd cut his teeth directing thousands of great montages for Warner Brothers, helmed a few decent gun-for-hire genre pictures and was now looking for a property he could put a personal stamp on.
The legendary Sam Peckinpah even got his first screen credit here. Hired as a gopher, he soon became invaluable to both Wanger and Siegel. In fact, it was Peckinpah who charmed the officials of Folsom Prison to allow the filmmakers to shoot the film on-location.
Siegel directed Collins' screenplay with all the ferocity he'd brought to the distinctive rat-a-tat-tat of the Warner montages and inspired by the real location of Folsom Prison, he fashioned a dark, brutal and breathlessly thrilling action film with his own take on the film noir approach to making movies. Siegel delivered big time. Riot in Cell Block 11 is a taut, searing open-pustule of a picture that never lets up.
We follow two perfectly matched cons played by Neville Brand and Leo Gordon who team up to lead a massive revolution within the prison. Brand is ferocious, but has great leadership abilities and Gordon's not only a psychopath, but a huge, powerful and merciless killer. Guards are taken as hostages and in no time, the entire prison is owned by the cons. The Warden is played by the great character actor Emile Meyer, whom noir fans will remember as the thuggish Lt. Kello in Sweet Smell of Success, but his character here, while tough as nails, is also sympathetic to the plight of the prisoners - he's been raising hell for years with the politicians and bureaucrats. Now he needs to negotiate with men whom he believes have a genuine concern, but he's shadowed by a horrendously persnickety by-the-book politician played to smarmy perfection by Frank Faylen.
Siegel handles the violence and tough talk like a master. As the film charges to a spectacular climax with all the panache you'd expect from a prison picture, you can't but occasionally realize that Riot in Cell Block 11 is from the director who eventually gave us a whole whack of great pictures, pictures we loved and admired. Interestingly we get a denouement which comes on the heels of fiery high tension and gives way to a conclusion which is tinged with melancholy, bitterness and maybe even just a bit of disgust - not unlike Siegel's bonafide masterpiece of 1971, Dirty Harry.
Riot in Cell Block 11 is available in a dual format box from the Criterion Collection. It comes with the usual bevy of goodies including a fresh 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, an audio commentary by film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein, my favourite extras which are excerpts from the director’s 1993 autobiography, "A Siegel Film" and Stuart Kaminsky’s phenomenal 1974 book "Don Siegel: Director", both read beautifully by Siegel's son Kristoffer Tabori. Add to the mix a 1953 NBC radio documentary "The Challenge of Our Prisons" and a first-rate booklet that includes a Chris Fujiwara essay, a 1954 article by producer Walter Wanger and a 1974 tribute to Siegel by filmmaker Sam Peckinpah.