When watching “Riot in Cell Block 11” (1954), one can’t help but be surprised by the film’s gritty, bold style, and stark realism. This is not a documentary, or a film based on an actual event, but it feels like it could be. Its distinct style and down-right brilliant overall production provide the exact ingredients needed in order to create a lasting film-watching experience that serves as an example to so many filmmakers that would emerge over the next generation.
The picture stars Emile Meyer as a warden who has spent years yelling from his soapbox about the deteriorating conditions of the enormous prison under his control. He has over 4,000 inmates under him, that is, until the men in cell block 11 decide they have had enough. Lead by James Dunn (Neville Brand) and the ruthless Mike Carnie (Leo Gordon), the men in cell block 11 overpower the four guards, holding them hostage. They are all still contained in the cell block, as they aren’t trying to escape- they just want to be heard, and treated like people. The men have a list of demands that they want met, all of which have to do with their mistreatment by guards, and the inhumane way that they are housed. Police Commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen) is brought in to help with the negotiations, but he doesn’t care about the conditions that the criminals are forced to live in, day in and day out, so his presence only makes matters worse, resulting in an intense and thrilling standoff.
“Riot in Cell Block 11” has everything that a film needs to entertain and entrance an audience. Filmed on location in Folsom Prison, shot by the amazing cinematographer Russell Harlon, this movie truly makes you feel as if you’re experiencing something real. Not as a leading character fighting alongside the other men, but as an observer, sitting on the catwalk above the action. Don Siegel directs, before his glory days when he made five films with Clint Eastwood (including 1979’s “Escape From Alcatraz”), and even before the popularity that he would receive with hits like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956). Although it is an earlier film in his career, there is already a clear indication that the man knows what he is doing. Siegel crafts with a precise goal in mind, and he is unwilling to compromise any realism for a more polished picture, which many producers surely would have pushed toward, in order to appeal to a wider audience. This, however, was not the case. Producer Walter Wanger famously served four months after shooting the suspected lover of his wife, actress Joan Bennett. It was his experiences surrounding that event that are said to have inspired him in the producing of this film.
This is a film that was made better because of the circumstances that surrounded the production. Even the actors add to the overall realism here. Sure there were a handful of seasoned character actors, but many of the extras are real guards and prisoners from Folsom Prison. And then there is Leo Gordon, whose dominating physical stature is enough to intimidate anyone. Earlier in his life he actually served five years after being involved in an armed robbery that also left him shot in the stomach. Even though that part of his life was behind him, it is obvious from his commanding performance here that the effects of his time inside helped in insurmountable terms to creating the most realistic portrayal possible.
“Riot in Cell Block 11” is an extremely interesting movie to come out of the mid 1950’s. It’s a dark, unflinching examination of the prison system, at a time when movies like this just weren’t made. It’s a throw back to those pre-code, ruthless, hard-hitting films like “The Big House” (1930) or even “The Racket” (1928). It also is a film that has spent enough time in obscurity, and now thanks to the Criterion Collection, has a chance once again to gain the recognition that it so clearly deserves.