Disc Jockey: ‘Riot in Cell Block 11′ is the rare thrilling message movie

A real-life incident gets recreated in the 1954 thriller "Riot in Cell Block 11." Credit: The Criterion Collection
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

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.

Also out:

‘Wild Heart’ You know that long stretch of “Twin Peaks”’ second season, right after the big reveal, that is unwatchably terrible? That’s because David Lynch was off indulging in his hard-R side, with this Elvis movie on acid, starring a rarely weirder Nicolas Cage in a snakeskin jacket. By the time he returned to the show, it was too late. (

‘Bettie Page Reveals All’ Shortly before her death, the former pin-up turned born-again convert sat down for this interview documentary, correcting certain misconceptions put forth by, among other things, the film “The Notorious Bettie Page.”

‘The Pawnbroker’ One of the key films that killed the censorious Production Code in Hollywood, Sidney Lumet’s drama focuses on a concentration camp survivor (Rod Steiger) unraveling in present day Harlem.

‘Get Carter’ Michael Caine is rarely more intimidating than he is in this moody British revenge pic, in which he barrels through the men who killed his brother, occasionally pausing to have detached phone sex with Britt Ekland.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


US military tried, but failed to rescue journalist…

The U.S. military earlier this year tried to rescue journalist James Foley and other American hostages held in Syria ,but failed to find the captives.


Fate of captured beluga whales in hands of…

A Georgia aquarium went to court on Wednesday seeking federal permission to bring 18 captured beluga whales to the United States from Russia.


After Eric Garner death, religious leaders meet to…

Interfaith leaders convened with city officials to discuss what the community can do to help dial down heightened tensions after Eric Garner's death.


'Suspicious' Hamilton Heights fire caused by power strip:…

An extension cord overload caused the deadly fire in Hamilton Heights late Monday that killed a 15-year-old girl and injured at least 12 others.


'So You Think You Can Dance' recap: Season…

And then there were six. It was a big night on stage as the Top 6 got to dance with each other, All-star partners and perform a solo routine.

Going Out

5 things to do in NYC this weekend…

FILM Lebowski Fest Aug. 22-23, 8 p.m. Various locations, Manhattan $20-$30, www.lebowskifest.com The Dude abides — for 48 hours to celebrate the 1998 Coen brothers classic.…


'Doctor Who' personality profile: the 4 Doctors

When the time comes for a new Doctor, there's always some anxiety over the big question: Who will he be? The series owes its longevity…


Billy Crystal to commemorate late actor Robin Williams…

  Comedian Billy Crystal will pay tribute to late actor Robin Williams at television's Primetime Emmy Awards on Aug. 25, the show's organizers said on…


Giants expected to work Corey Washington into first-team…

The day of reckoning for the Giants' fringe players will fall upon them Friday night against the Jets.


Jalen Saunders still unsure what caused car accident…

Jets rookie wide receiver Jalen Saunders spoke to the media Wednesday for the first time since his car accident, but he didn't say a whole lot.


2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL defense (DEF)


2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL quarterbacks (QB)


Online dating for every generation

Frank Jackson and his mother Maggie are like lots of modern families: They have dinner together regularly, keep each other updated on their lives —…


Going green could be the key to getting…

If we could just pursue the things that would actually make us happy, we could help the environment too, according to a New York researcher.…


Metabolic syndrome could have a sugar link

Scientists in St. Louis may have found another culprit in metabolic syndrome, which can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.  Uric acid is…


Another way stress hurts your unborn baby

Mothers know to try staying calm during pregnancy, as stress has been linked to behavioral and developmental problems for their babies. But now, a new…