The opening newsreel footage tells of an epidemic of prison riots across the U.S., and contains a stern message from Prison Association spokesman Richard A. McGee about the lamentable conditions that will continue to prompt such riots if left unchanged. Opening a film with real-life reportage was not uncommon in crime films of the period, but Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) was more grounded in reality than most: producer Walter Wanger had recently done time for shooting Jennings Lang, who had been having an affair with Wanger’s wife, the actress Joan Bennett. Wanger received a light sentence, but those four months were more than enough to make him understand that the penal system was in appalling shape. Overcrowding, underfunding and the placement of highly dangerous, mentally ill convicts in with regular offenders were chief among the problems Wanger gained first-hand knowledge of, though it’s the unfair placement of prisoners in solitary confinement, and the inhumane treatment received while there, that prompts the titular riot in this bleak, bracing, sometimes savage politically driven actioner. In the intervening 60 years things have only gotten worse. The same day that Riot comes out on DVD and BD from Criterion, PBS will broadcast a new documentary entitled Solitary Nation, which concerns the deep trauma suffered from long-term placement in solitary, and the consequences for everyone, both inside and out.
Riot was directed by Don Siegel, a specialist in clean, male-centred, brutal thrillers, like The Big Steal (1949), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Lineup (1958) and, most famously, Dirty Harry (1971). It was shot in Folsom Prison, cast with relative unknowns, kept on the cheap, though it doesn’t look it. The scenes of violence are framed and edited in such a way that nothing is lingered over yet everything looks like it really, really hurts. There’s hardly what you could call a hero in the film, but Dunn (Neville Brand), the convict who leads the riot and announces the prisoners demands—which just happen to match those repeatedly filed by the prison’s warden—is an extremely compelling protagonist, not a good guy, but a guy giving a reasonably intelligent voice to a good cause, while the warden (the wonderful character actor Emile Meyer) is a weary, hardboiled yet sympathetic figure caught between a chaotic mutiny led by sociopaths and a greater authority willing to resort to violence, murder and trickery to restore an unsustainable veneer of order.
It all works best when most of the artifice is stripped down to a minimum. Herschel Burke Gilbert’s martial score is exciting, but it also gets in the way of what makes Siegel’s work tick. For all its chaos, Riot in Cell Block 11 is in a sense a procedural, showing us step-by-step how a riot is staged, maintained, and finally undone. It is thus never more riveting when simply showing us action unimpeded by style or flash. The convicts clamouring for better treatment in this film are men with almost nothing left to lose—“We’re rotting to death,” declares Dunn—men whose daily existence has been reduced to numbing austerity. Riot does their story justice when it too feels austere, numb, and scarily go-for-broke.