Riot in Cell Block 11 was produced by longtime Hollywood independent producer Walter Wanger (he was also responsible for two earlier Criterion releases, Stagecoach and Foreign Correspondent) as a hard-hitting, gritty, realistic picture depicting the inequities and maltreatment prisoners receive in American prisons. Wanger had a personal reason to make a film like that. He had barely missed spending some time in one. He’d caught his wife with another man, so Wanger shot the guy, seriously wounding him. A temporary insanity defense got him only four months at an “honor farm,” which was hardly the same as the federal penitentiary, but he was nonetheless inspired to tell the world how things really were. Enter Don Siegel, a macho, unconventional craftsman who would later make such classics as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry. Since the picture was going to be made in Folsom State Prison and featuring real inmates as extras, Wanger needed something of a tough guy to helm the thing. Siegel was his man.
Released in 1954 and starring a bunch of B-movie character actors as leads (Neville Brand, Emile Meyer, Leo Gordon, and others), Riot concerns a group of irate inmates that take over their block and hold guards as hostages. Their demands are humane ones, and yet the governor and the movie’s “bad guy,” the commissioner, are against giving the cons anything and will use deadly force to stop the riot—even if it means sacrificing the hostages. Meyer, as the prison warden, delivers a surprisingly sympathetic performance as he sides with the convicts but still attempts to do his job (Meyer would later appear in a small role as a priest in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory). Brand and Gordon (who apparently really was a scary guy on the set) run the show—and there’s no shortage of beatings, arson, vandalism, and attempted murder (the film was banned in the U.K. on its initial release). Interestingly, the audience ends up rooting for the inmates, who normally should be the villains.
What’s particularly striking is Siegel’s use of location. As in a documentary, the use of the Folsom gives audiences a view of what it’s really like on the inside (at the time). It’s the real thing. Siegel manages to illustrate the claustrophobic desperation of the environment with great skill. But what’s even more profound is that the depiction of the prison population in 1954 is very different from what we envision the inhabitants of a prison might be today. For one thing, the whites outnumber the blacks in Riot. Was that realistic in 1954? It must have been, since all the extras in the picture were indeed inmates. The place also doesn’t seem as frightening as the gang-ridden institutions of the present. Nevertheless, Riot is honest and hard-hitting, another entry in a long line of “social problem films” that proliferated after World War II (The Lost Weekend, Gentleman’s Agreement, All the King’s Men, The Snake Pit, etc.).
Criterion’s new 2K digital restoration looks terrific. Since earlier home video versions in the U.S. were either on VHS or bootleg DVDs, the new dual format release is a welcome one. Film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein provides audio commentary. The extras are a bit disappointing, though. Two audio pieces feature Siegel’s son, Kristoffer Tabori, reading passages from his father’s autobiography and Stuart Kaminsky’s book on the director. These are fine if one doesn’t mind being read to for a half-hour. The other extra is all-audio as well—an excerpt from a 1953 NBC radio documentary series called The Challenge of Our Prisons. The usual thick booklet contains an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, a 1954 article by Wanger, and a 1974 tribute to Siegel by Sam Peckinpah.