Andrew Sarris once observed that Don Siegel's best films "express the doomed peculiarity of the antisocial outcast." This was in 1968, three years before the journeyman director would reach his widest audience with the vigilante crime classic Dirty Harry and nearly a decade prior to The Shootist, a mournful depiction of an aging cowboy starring John Wayne that plays at once like an elegy for its waning star, a dying breed of western mythology, and the equally imminent destiny of practical genre filmmaking. This interest in the ill-fated vagabond was a consistent feature of Siegel's work for almost 40 years. But perhaps its most singular expression came early on with 1954's Riot in Cell Block 11, a rousing mid-'50s B movie with a thoroughly American topicality. Siegel may have had only a handful of credits to his name prior to making the film, but it's now all but understood that Riot in Cell Block 11 not only set the thematic template for his career, but also solidified an efficient aesthetic model which the director would spend decades reviving and recalibrating.
For a film with such a forthright title, Riot in Cell Block 11 is surprisingly complex, a multi-level moral tale with shades of ambiguity placing motivations and misgivings alike in starkly critical light. So while on the one hand the film is a kind of brute potboiler, on the other it's an inquisitive yet pointed message movie. Inspired in part by producer Walter Wanger's brief time spent in prison following assault charges levied after shooting his wife's would-be suitor, the film (otherwise based on a real incident that took place in Jackson, Michigan) presents the concrete confines of its title as a cage of social warfare, pitting the inmates against the authorities in what would seem a conclusively outlined dichotomy. And yet lines are continually blurred, with audience sympathy most often aligned with the criminals, whose demands, despite being conveyed via violent methods, amount to what would otherwise qualify as humane measures toward prison reform. Among these are continuing education and rehabilitation programs, clean living quarters, less outwardly violent security protocol, and a division between cells blocks based on mental health and severity of offense—seemingly implicit sanctions which nonetheless continued (and in a couple cases, continue) to be real-life enforcement issues.
Spurred on by such unreasonable conditions, the mob of rioters soon begin to individuate themselves amid the gathering tumult. There's Dunn (Neville Brand), the mouthpiece and de facto leader of the group, who appears the most rationale, while the self-explanatory 'Crazy' Mike Carnie (Leo Gordon) is continually kept in check by the more stable among the gang. Yet Siegel and screenwriter Richard Collins upend such easy classifications whenever possible, most notably in an early sequence where Dunn beats an African-American inmate for questioning the necessity of the uprising. Dunn's own mental health is even referenced in another scene by the warden (played by Emile Meyer), who nevertheless identifies and in many ways sympathizes with the motivations behind the riot (we also learn early on that many of the prisoners' demands have been previously proposed by the warden himself). By coloring in such shades of gray rather than in simple strokes of black or white, the filmmakers effectively present their message without failing to acknowledge the inherent contradictions of such an irreconcilable scenario. The narrative is thus allowed to proceed at a breakneck speed, with the film's thematic intentions built right into its formal infrastructure, rendering excessive grandstanding or moralizing unnecessary.
Matching the film's hard-knuckle characterizations, Siegel's style is a blunt object of expression with an integrity all its own. Framing much of the action in long shots, a seemingly antithetical approach to hands-on action choreography, Siegel and cinematographer Russell Harlan manage to make such removed perspectives feel appropriately inclusive, echoing the democratic empathy granted to each faction of the conflict. (Despite a couple of standout performances, never does the film feel like anything but an ensemble piece.) Siegel's attention to the geography of the grounds and the demarcations of cell blocks and administrative spaces is equally important to the film's atmosphere of authenticity. Shooting on location at Folsom Prison, Siegel exhibits a noticeable regard for the physicality of the yard and the personality of each individual interior location. Which is an appropriate approach since the manner in which wayward males react to their given environment is one of Siegel's major thematic concerns, as is our capacity for violence and retribution even at the expense of ethical responsibility. And in that sense, Riot in Cell Block 11, even at such an early juncture, is a perfect microcosm of Siegel's career.
Riot in Cell Block 11 makes the prestigious jump from VHS straight to Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection, who also include the film in standard definition on a second disc. For its part, the 1080p presentation looks wonderful, with noticeable texture and grain supporting balanced contrast and sharp, gritty detail. Moments of sunlit exteriors and shadowy interiors are handled with equal care, as is the removal of visual artifacts, which are all but nonexistent. This harmonious marriage of analog source material and digital-restoration tools results in a clean, film-like image. Sound, meanwhile, is kept in original monaural form, with a linear PCM track handling the raucous sound effects and dialogue about as well as a single-channel remaster can reasonably hope to accommodate. Dialogue is clean and clear and undue noise is kept to a minimum. The audio, like the picture quality, appears authentic.
An odd assortment of extras (identical on both discs) are included with the package. The main takeaway is the informative and well researched audio commentary by film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein, who speaks consistently through the entirety of the film about its origins and the unique team of talent brought on board to realize the project. Meanwhile, three separate audio supplements are offered, two featuring Don Siegel's son, Kristoffer Tabori, reading excerpts from both his father's autobiography and a different book chronicling Siegel's career by Stuart Kamisky, while the third consists of nearly an hour of excerpts from a 1953 NBC radio broadcast called "The Challenge of Our Prisons." Lastly, there's the always-useful Criterion booklet, here collecting an essay on the film by critic Chris Fujiwara, a 1954 Look magazine article written by producer Walter Wanger, and a short tribute to Siegel by Sam Peckinpah.
A rousing mid-'50s B movie with a thoroughly American topicality, Riot in Cell Block 11 set both the thematic template and aesthetic model for Don Siegel's career, and it receives an appropriately sharp, gritty presentation from Criterion. [Slant]