Joshua Reviews Don Siegel’s Riot In Cell Block 11 [Dual Format Review]


When one thinks of a prison picture, more often than not the image of busty blondes in torn up orange suits or buff men with perfectly groomed hair beating up on one another with no other point other than to prove what one can do on a zero dollar budget come to mind. Very much fodder for the B-movie action film or thriller, the prison film has become a relative joke and not much more than inspiration for uninteresting actioners with more interest in visual bombast than anything resembling storytelling.

But that hasn’t always been the case. Throughout the ’40s and ’50s, directors went behind bars for some of the more interesting meditations on society at that point in human history, and did so in thrillingly cinematic ways. With directors like Jules Dassin turning this genre into one of the most rewarding of its time period (by ostensibly embedding themes and tropes from things like film noir and crime cinema into the prison system).
And now it’s Don Siegel’s turn for some much needed spotlight.

Next week Criterion will be releasing a new Blu-ray of director Siegel’s seminal work, Riot In Cell Block 11, one of the most inspired and shocking looks at the life of an inmate cinema has ever seen. A tour de force motion picture with all the brains and brawn Siegel would become known for, this has proven to be yet another superb entry in the “out-of-nowhere-where-did-they-pick-this-from” series of releases Criterion has become the best in the world at crafting.

Inspired by a rash of inmate riots at prisons throughout the country, this 1954 masterwork takes a look at Folsom State Prison, and an uprising of its own. In an attempt to fix their brutal living conditions, a handful of prison inmates take a group of guards hostage, and demand a handful of changes be made by the governor and their very own warden. The Warden, as the character is credited, is a liberal leaning man who himself has been fighting for over a decade to help fix the horrible state of inmate life. Requesting that the press be present to show the world just how bleak things are behind those bars they are kept behind, the negotiations commence and what follows is an economical 80 minutes monster of a thrill ride, that is a truly thoughtful meditation on a system that still has no clue how to aid in the rehabilitation of its inmates or how to humanely house them within the confines of their prisons. Dated only in, say, the haircuts of the men starring in the film, this is a resounding motion picture more than deserving of the Criterion “C.”

Best known for films like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and even Dirty Harry, this is a rather perfect entry point for those new to the world of director Don Siegel. One of a handful of team ups between he and producer Walter Wanger, the film is a perfectly distilled manifestation of Siegel’s aesthetic prowess. Simplistic in structure and yet provocatively dense thematically, this flying bullet of an action drama clocks in at just 80 minutes, and doesn’t waste a single one. With luscious black and white photography from Russell Harlan that really amps up the volatility of the proceedings into something closer resembling a documentary than a real fiction piece, the film is an uncompromising meditation on the living conditions of prisoners during this time period, and is still as vital today as it has ever been. Herschel Burke Gilbert’s score is superb, and the use of real life prisoners and guards as extras only aids in giving birth to a picture that feels so real you’ll think you have grit and grime caked under your fingernails. With its blunt title being a perfect hint as to the uncompromising yet shockingly engrossing aesthetic built here, this is a real triumph of humane filmmaking that does its job and then some.

Performance wise, the film is uniformly solid. The real star here is Neville Brand as the inmate’s leader, Dunn, and his arc is the most intriguing one built here. With the final sequence playing like an emotional gut punch of sorts, there is quite a bit of growth here, and the relationships inside of the walls of the prison feel real and admittedly melodramatic, but add some much needed drama. Emile Meyer is solid but a tad one note as The Warden, as is the bombastic Leo Gordon as the off-the-hinges Carnie. Performances here are solid but admittedly not the film’s strongest aspect. Thankfully the film’s pacing is so spot on and so brisk that it doesn’t truly give the viewer much need to find an connective thread for more than just the lead and the man he is negotiating with.

Now here is where it gets kind of interesting. As noted in the booklet joining Criterion’s release, you’ll notice that throughout the film’s history, the picture has been projected in various aspect ratios including 1.37:1 and 1.85:1. However, as many people will note, the only ratio shown here is 1.37:1, and much talk has been surrounding this. However, it’s a beautifully on the nose choice. The new transfer is of a 2K restoration and looks absolutely breathtaking. The grain here is bewilderingly effective and there is a crispness to each frame turning this into a real gem of a restoration. The use of light and darkness is evocative, and it’s overall a resoundingly pristine new transfer. And supplements abound as well. Scholar Matthew H. Bernstein gives a superb commentary with insightful looks at the film’s production and impact, and there are a handful of audio supplements included ranging from snippets of a radio documentary looking into the lives of prisoners during this time, and a few readings from various books about the film and its director. Overall, for a film not many people have seen or heard of to get this level of a release is a triumph and yet another look at just how superb a company Criterion truly is. A fantastic look at the treatment of prisoners during the 1950’s, this is a film that may not have the name of some of Criterion’s April releases, but should be seen as a must own along with the rest of this fantastic slate.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.