RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11
Review by Gordon Justesen
Brand, Emile Meyer, Frank Faylen, Leo Gordon, Robert Osterloh
Director: Don Siegel
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Aspect Ratio 1.37:1
Features: See Review
Length: 80 Minutes
Release Date: April 22, 2014
“We’ll figure out what we want, and if they don’t give it to us...WE’LL MAKE EM A PRESENT OF ONE DEAD GUARD!”
My interest in Riot in Cell Block 11 came mainly from the fact that it was one of the earlier directorial efforts of Don Siegel. This was a director who would later go to direct several notable films with Clint Eastwood, particularly Dirty Harry. But I was fully unaware of what exactly led to the creation of this film, and that makes it all the more fascinating.
As it turns out the film’s producer, Walter Wanger, had served time in prison. He served a four month sentence for shooting a man he believed to be in an affair with his wife, actress Joan Bennett. During his time inside, Wanger was unsettled by the conditions he paid witness to concerning the overall treatment of the inmates. Once released, he sought to get a film made that would bring awareness to the matter.
Making it all the more authentic was that it was actually shot in and around Folsom Prison, and many of the inmates themselves were used as extras. That level of realism is a pivotal ingredient in making this one of the most effective prison films ever made. Even though I’d seen many films of this ilk prior to this 1954 release, there’s no doubt in my mind that Riot in Cell Block 11 inspired many of those later films.
The film opens with an examination of prison riots escalating across the country. And this stems from the very conditions Wanger saw during his prison stint. Inmates are unhappy with how their being treated by the state, and should such conditions go on then it’s only a matter of time before a retaliation is executed.
And that’s precisely what occurs in the titular cell block 11, where prisoner James Dunn (Neville Brand) and several others set up a scenario in order to snag keys from a prison guard. Once that happens, they take down additional guards before taking complete control of the entire block. The next step is to get the warden (Emile Meyer) a list of demands that he can persuade to Governor to grant.
Superbly shot, terrifically executed and extremely well acted, most notably by Neville Brand, an actor who I forgot I had seen as a maniac slasher in a late 70s horror pic called Eaten Alive, Riot in Cell Block 11 might just be one of the very first true examples of white-knuckled, tension filled, race against the clock thrillers. It serves as both grand entertainment but also most thought provoking about the issues it brings forth to the audience.
Criterion ushers in yet another astounding HD transfer of classic material with this Blu-ray release. The authentic look of the film is made even more so by way of the 2k digital mastering. The black and white image boasts endless detail from beginning to end, with the levels of both colors staying rich throughout. No signs of edge enhancement or that of compression artifacts. Yet another bright shining example of Criterion’s utter brilliance in film restoration.
For a film with this much age, the mono presentation is truly impressive. Though limited in range, and dealing mainly with dialogue delivery, the sound mix balances it out most nicely with the sporadic moments of physical action expected in a film dealing with a prison riot. Spoken words are heard terrifically well, and the music score is also presented in a lively form!
For this Dual Format release, including both a Blu-ray and a DVD edition, Criterion ushers in some truly engaging supplements. Included is a commentary with film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein, as well as audio excerpts from the director's 1993 autobiography, “A Siegel Film”, and Stuart Kaminsky's 1974 book “Don Siegel: Director”, both of which are read by the director’s son, Kristoffer Tabori. In addition, there are audio excerpts from the 1953 NBC Radio Documentary series, "The Challenge Of Our Prisons".
Lastly, there’s a terrific booklet featuring an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, a 1954 article by producer Walter Wanger, and an excerpt from the 1974 tribute to Siegel by filmmaker Sam Peckinpah.
Both gripping and provocative, Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11 is a piece of filmmaking that helped to set the standard for prison movies. It’s also a film very relevant to the present times. The Blu-ray presentation from Criterion is another illustration of true film preservation!