A real-life incident gets recreated in the 1954 thriller "Riot in Cell Block 11." Credit: The Criterion Collection
‘Riot in Cell Block 11’ The Criterion Collection $39.95
In 1951, Hollywood producer Walter Wanger shot a man. Wanger thought his wife, the star Joan Bennett, had been carrying on an affair with her former agent and, in a fit of jealousy, shot him twice. It wasn’t fatal, and Wanger wound up with a four month stint in the slammer. He emerged enraged — not at simply going to jail, but at the prison system’s deplorable conditions, which saw overpacked cons all mixed together, and a staggering recidivism rate. Perhaps more important, he had a movie.
But if “Riot in Cell Block 11,” a low budget number from 1954 with no big stars (Wanger, if anyone, is the name drawl), is a liberal message movie, hoping to impact change, it doesn’t always feel it. From the lurid title down, it marries do-gooder-ism to exploitation. Wanger even hired one of the great vulgarians to direct it: Don Siegel, who would soon helm “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (and later “Dirty Harry”). Today’s liberal message movies wear their missions piously and inelegantly. But “Riot in Cell Block 11” is thrilling, exciting, even as it grinds its axe to a sharp cut.
After a stiff newsreel-like opening, complete with our stentorian narrator “talking” to a prison official during a press conference, it takes on a different kind of realism: true grit. The elaborate plan to start a riot — based on an incident in Jackson, Michigan two years prior — plays like a prison escape adventure. (Siegel would later direct “Escape From Alcatraz,” with frequent star Clint Eastwood.) Turns out their intentions are more modest: They want to improve conditions. Indeed, their list of demands gibes almost to the letter with the feelings of the surprisingly sympathetic warden (Emile Meyer).
There’s a fair amount of sweaty bodies and mass hysteria and hard violence in “Riot in Cell Block 11,” which Siegel films with his trademark energy; shots of swirling men, cascading upon eachother with fists and hurled objects, seem like barely controlled chaos. But the film is very careful, dainty even, about viewing the events clearly and with humanity. The instigators, led by square-jawed James V. Dunn (Neville Brand), may be in the right, but they’re violent, even psychotic — rational and irrational, peaceful and violent. They bully and intimidate not only the prison officials and the guards they hold captive, but also the inmates who don’t want to be punished should the riot go awry. The guards, meanwhile, remark on their low pay.
Some of the finest moments in the film are quiet and purely character driven. One finds a mousy inmate chatting with a guard, telling him that though he may seem a teddy bear, he’s really a compulsive thief. These, plus the occasional explosive bursts of orgiastic violence, temper the preachiness, of which there is still a fair amount, including vomited up statistics and factoids.
As it happens, its real intelligence is buried deeper down. In an essay that comes with Criterion’s characteristically souped-up edition, writer and programmer Chris Fujiwara says it forms a diptych with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as movies about humanity squaring off against conformity. The “pod people” here are disorganized bureaucracies with no interest in improving matters. Most of these characters are literally faceless; they are off-screen, pulling the strings at a comfortable remove from the action. Nearly every person shown in “Riot in Cell Block 11” is sympathetic and unable, for various reasons, to effect change.
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