Don Siegel has long been known as one of the “Hollywood professionals,” a group of second-string directors whose work was consistently reliable. Siegel’s films are tough and taut; some even applied the meaningless term “master of violence” before it was bestowed on Sam Peckinpah, one of Siegel’s protégé’s; the term of course ignores the precise role of violence in the films of these men, and their importance as dramatists. Siegel accomplished much; he was one of two filmmakers (the other being Sergio Leone) who made the failed TV actor Clint Eastwood an international icon and taught him his trade.
Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), just restored by the Criterion Collection, was Siegel’s breakthrough film, to be followed shortly by the sci-fi masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) and a host of fine gangster films. I haven’t seen Riot in many years, and was surprised to see how flaccid it is; the movie is less a social problem film than expose, the kind of grubby pop culture loved by an angry, repressed 1950s American society. Prison riots captured headlines in the 50s, so Siegel’s film was topical – the worst prison riots, represented by the Attica massacre in 1971, when New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller turned loose the police on complaining inmates resulting in the death of 43 people, were yet to come; clearly the complaints by Siegel’s incarcerated characters are understated.
Shot at Folsom State Prison, immortalized by a Johnny Cash song, Riot is most compelling in its attempt at authenticity, but never achieves the fierceness of Siegel crime films like The Lineup (1958), Baby Face Nelson (1957), The Killers (1964), and Dirty Harry (1971), the latter making the .44 Magnum revolver the most popular weapon in America, as the film raised questions about the ostensibly liberal Siegel, whose politics seem apparent in Riot in Cell Block 11.
Two convicts, Dunn (Neville Brand) and Carnie (Leo Gordon) unleash a riot over deplorable prison conditions. Carnie is a sadistic psychopath (Dunn, unaccountably, is similarly described), and things “get out of hand” very quickly and predictably. The warden (Emile Meyer) is the soul of reasonableness, which gives the film some intelligence; Dunn is fooled into believing that his demands will be met, but in the denouement his sentence is extended for 30 years, although Carnie and other disturbed convicts will be sent to mental hospitals, and the prison is to be made a bit more habitable – a promise that is less than convincing. There is an aura of despair as Dunn walks back to his cell, knowing that liberal gradualism means next to nothing. But the film seems to embrace gradualism as the only viable solution to the problems of capitalist society.
Some of the film’s scenes of angry crowds feel authentic (Siegel employed Folsom inmates), but one gets the sense of fascinating vignettes rather than a tight, coherent whole. Releasing this sort of film on Blu-ray seems self-defeating, since its graininess and period feel may be what sustain it most.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International.
Riot in Cell Block 11 was released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection on April 22, 2014.