The Criterion Collection’s ‘Riot in Cell Block 11’ (1954) [Review]

©The Criterion Collection
©The Criterion Collection

Recently released on Blu-Ray and DVD as part of the Criterion Collection, Riot In Cell Block 11 presents a heartfelt, neo-documentary approach to a group of prisoners who stage a riot in their attempt to gain some much-needed reforms. Director Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry) shot the film in Folsom Prison using a mix of actors and real inmates over an eight week period after being approached by producer Walter Wanger who had himself recently been released from prison after serving time for shooting his wife’s lover. Having experienced firsthand the abuse of prisoners, Wanger wanted to spread awareness of the problem and was able to secure a deal with Allied Artists to shoot the film.

©The Criterion Collection
©The Criterion Collection

The plot is lean and gets straight to the point, sparing little time in getting to the riot itself. Overtaking a guard during lockdown at night, the convicts in cell block 11 are quickly able to subdue the remaining three guards and take control of the entire block. Convict James Dunn (played by Neville Brand) takes control of the inmates, focusing their anger into an effort to force the changes they’ve long been petitioning for such as remodeling the wing, ensuring better treatment, gaining educational programs and removing violent mental patients who were placed in the facility due to unavailable mental health facilities. With his hands full trying to keep some of the aforementioned patients from killing the guards en masse (this was before they had cable and X-Box, after all), he enlists the aid of the Colonel (played by Robert Osterloh), an ex-military colonel who is nearing parole and wants nothing to do with the violence. Eventually recognizing that he’s a part of the equation whether he likes it or not, he reluctantly agrees to draft their list of demands. When the state police are brought in to quell the uprising (and a brief revolt in another cell block) a prisoner is killed and the pressure is on for both sides to find a solution before the violence explodes out of control.

The film focuses more on the movement of the prisoners and less on their characters and this is one of the area’s where I felt the film lacked; we’re expected to have sympathy for their plight but we never see the prisoners being abused or mistreated (short of sleeping in cots in some of the overcrowded areas) and because we never really learn who they are as people, we can only judge their character upon their actions, which are violent and forceful. I understand that the production wants us to focus on the reality of their world and what they’re enduring, but all we really know about them is summed up in the label CONVICT and that’s a label with a lot of negative baggage to overcome. Unfortunately, we’re given scant reason to ever reframe their identity. The one or two characters we do get some insight into, opine about not being treated fairly or as human beings and to my ears it started to come across as whining. I mean, lord, you’re in freakin’ Folsom Prison. Further, you’re in the Isolation Ward at Folsom Prison which is like prison for prison or something. I agree you shouldn’t be tortured but you did do something that landed you there and it’s not because you deserved a vacation. Because, y’know, prison.

While a lot of time is spent underlining the need for prison reform (the Warden, played by Emile Meyer, is vocally sympathetic to their prisoner’s needs but critical of their methods), scant lip service is given to an opposing perspective. Commissioner Haskell (played by Frank Faylen) is an outspoken critic of the Warden’s previous efforts at prison reform and makes no secret of his contempt for the inmates. The Governor (played by Thomas Browne Henry in a small supporting role) is cautious and seems more concerned about the politics of agreeing to the demands of the prisoners than to the validity of their plight. Still, this is clearly a film with an agenda shot during a time in our history when the concept of social movements was still largely finding itself and the sympathies of most of the population lay with the government and authority figures in general. With that kind of an uphill battle, the overt hammering of the message may in fact have been their best approach.

©The Criterion Collection
©The Criterion Collection

I certainly don’t think this is a bad film, but I think if a little more time had been spent developing and portraying the characters and encouraging us to invest our sympathies in them and less in soap box proselytizing, the film would have packed more punch. As it stands now, I feel like I’m watching a bunch of impulsive men acting out and telling us to trust they have reasons for doing what they do without actually ever presenting the evidence for it. And as a sidebar, I can’t help but wonder if the prisoner who’s suffering a nightmare in the beginning of the film wasn’t the inspiration for the dying prisoner Lloyd Henreid deals with in his cell in Stephen King’s novel The Stand. And here’s some fun trivia for you: the word “gunsel” is used in this film and in many films of the era to refer to a criminal with a gun. It’s actually a Yiddish word meaning “a young man kept for homosexual purposes” and it’s inclusion here may have been more than just a misunderstanding of its definition; it follows a scene where it’s hinted that one cellmate is sexually interested in another, younger one (an extrapolation from the Jackson, Michigan prison riot where aggressive homosexual activity was considered a problem and the riot which this film was plotted around).

As for the disc itself, Criterion once again delivers a beautiful presentation. Though I only had the DVD to review, I was impressed with the sharpness of the image and the well-balanced picture presented here in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio that was common for the era. Filmed in B&W, the blacks have presence and the highlights are bright without ever blowing out. The greys are solid and the overall contrasts are nicely blended. The grain is a bit soft which is to be expected on standard def.

Disc extras are spartan, almost certainly owing to a lack of available materials. Included are photo montages that run underneath excerpts read from the director’s 1993 autobiography, A Siegel Film and Stuart Kaminsky’s 1974 book Don Siegel: Director, both read by Siegel’s son Kristoffer Tabori.

Also included is an audio excerpt from the 1953 NBC radio documentary series The Challenge of Our Prisons as well as an interesting and insightful audio commentary by film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein. Bernstein discusses a wide range of subjects relevant to the film, from Wanger’s legal history that led to its conception, to the point-by-point similarities to the Jackson, Michigan riot  (which also led to the filmmakers being sued by the makers of a documentary on that riot).

Three additional extras, a 1954 article by producer Walter Wanger, an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, and a 1974 tribute to Siegel by filmmaker Sam Peckinpah are included on the Blu-Ray but not the DVD (though the latter two can be viewed on the Criterion website).

Scott Bruffey

About Scott Bruffey

Scott Bruffey is a jaded, cynical freelance polymath obsessed with Disney's Haunted Mansion who spends his time dabbling in videography, audio production, Harvey comics and can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.

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