Riot In Cell Block 11, a somewhat early directorial effort in Don Siegel's filmography, began life when the film's producer, Walter Wanger, went to prison for four months in 1951 for shooting Jennings Lang, a man that he believed was sleeping with his wife, the beautiful actress Joan Bennett. Wanger was distraught over the conditions that he witnessed firsthand during his incarceration and decided to bring attention to the issue by making a film inspired by his time locked away from society. He came to Don Siegel to direct, while Richard Collins handled writing duties on the project.
Shot on location in California's infamous Folsom Prison and using a whole lot of the actual inmate population as extras in the picture, the story begins with an introductory scene that tells us about the plague of prison riots erupting violently across the United States. The prisoners are unhappy with the conditions and treatment doled out by the state and they're angry enough to do something about it. From here, we voyage into Cell Block 11 where the situation is just starting to approach boiling point. When they don't improve, James Dunn (Neville Brand) and the other inmates trick a guard named Monroe (Paul Frees) and wind up snagging his keys. From here, they take out the other guards and quickly secure command of the block.
The warden, Reynolds (Emile Meyer), is sympathetic to the cause and believes that for the betterment of society the prison population deserves better than what they're getting. For this reason he agrees to read the list of demands to the media circus but the Governor and Commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen) are less than sympathetic. They intend to crack down on the rioters and use this to send a message to other facilities where similar problems could easily come up. Things aren't exactly coming up roses inside Cell Block 11 though, because ‘Crazy' Mike Carnie (Leo Gordon) is just itching to lay some hurt into the captive guards. Dunn doesn't want to play things that way and he allies himself with The Colonel (Robert Osterloh) to hopefully keep Mike in check. A few of the other inmates want to just give this all up out of fear of retaliation and a power struggle amongst the men ensues while outside forces and the powers that be conspire to blow up the cell block altogether.
Fast paced, gritty and authentic this is a tense film that sometimes feels more like a documentary than a work of fiction. Shooting the picture inside Folsom Prison helps a lot with that as does the inclusion of so many actual prisoners, but on top of that we get a topical story that manages to deal with some important social issues without resorting to heavy preaching or ham-fisted melodrama. This is entertainment first and foremost, but in raising the issues that it does it makes for some solid food for thought. A lot of what gives this movie some appreciable depth stems from the way in which Warden Reynolds is portrayed. Where many prison films are content to simply paint the warden character as sadistic or unfeeling, Reynolds knows that if his inmates are mistreated on the inside they'll just bring the hatred, bitterness and resentment they feel with them upon their eventual release. As such, he sees the value of treating these men better not just from a bleeding heart humanitarian angle but from a socio-political angle as well. And indeed we can and do see the inmates' frustrations play out in front of us. Cell Block 11 is overcrowded, it's dirty and the guards often times take out their frustrations on the incarcerated men.
The acting here is strong. Meyer and Brand get most of the screen time as it's their negotiations that propel the plot along so effectively. You can sense the tension that exists between the two men thanks to the fine performances and so too can you sense a begrudging sort of respect just beneath the surface. This makes for interesting contrasts against the scenes of the actual rioting that take place, many of which are quite intense and absolutely give off the feeling of unpredictability and violence which helps to make for some pretty riveting viewing.
Riot In Cell Block 11 arrives on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed in its original 1.37.1 fullframe aspect ratio. In short, this is a top notch transfer. Though the film is fairly grainy, there's no actual print damage to report outside of a few really tiny specks here and there. Detail would seem to be as strong as the source material will allow. Although the camera moves around a lot and often fairly quickly at that, the picture still shows impressive detail and texture. Contrast looks good, whites never bloom too much, while black levels stay strong but not at the cost of shadow detail. There are no compression artifacts to note nor are there any obvious issues with either edge enhancement or noise reduction. All in all, this is crisp, clean and an authentic film-like presentation, the movie looks great.
The English language LPCM Mono track on the disc is understandably limited in its range by the original source material but it sounds quite good given its age. Dialogue is clean and clear and while there is some minor background hiss audible in some of the narration the mix is otherwise quite good. There are no problems with any distortion and the sound effects used throughout the movie, primarily those that remind us we're dealing with incarceration (doors closing, footsteps walking a long, empty hall, etc.) have more depth than you might expect. The score has also got good range and helps to heighten the mood, tension and atmosphere created by the dramatic visuals. Optional English closed captions are also provided.
The main extra on the disc is a new audio commentary by film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein that does a great job of supplying some welcome background information about the picture. He compares this to other prison movies and notes what sets it apart and also puts it into some interesting historical and cultural context by comparing it to some of Siegel's other movies. He spends a good bit of time talking about the contributions of the cast and crew members who worked with the director on this project and also shares some interesting facts and information about the location. It's a very good track that really dives deep into the history around this picture and it's absolutely worth taking the time to appreciate.
Additionally we get twenty-five minutes of audio excerpts from Siegel's 1993 autobiography, A Siegel Film, as read by his son Kristoffer Tabori, thirteen minutes of audio excerpts from Stuart Kaminsky's book Don Siegel: Director< written in 1974 and also read by Kristoffer Tabori and just under an hour's worth of audio excerpts from an NBC radio broadcast called The Challenge of Our Prisons from 1953. The NBC piece is particularly interesting as it gives us some insight into what was happening in the prison system around the time that this picture was made, while the two audio excerpts from the books provide some background information on the director and additional information about the feature represented here. Menus and chapter selection are also found on the disc and as this is a combo pack release, and a DVD version of the movie with the same supplements as the Blu-ray is also included inside the case.
Also found inside the case alongside the discs is a booklet of liner notes that include an essay written by film critic Chris Fujiwara on the picture, a reprint of an article by producer Walter Wanger from 1954 and a piece written in tribute to Don Siegel by the legendary Sam Peckinpah (who worked as a production assistant on this film) from 1974.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of Don Siegel's Riot In Cell Block 11 is excellent in pretty much every regard. The transfer is strong in detail and contrast, the audio is very effective and the extras are comprehensive and illuminating. As to the movie itself, it's a smart film that raises some issues to which there aren't a lot of easy answers and which portrays conflict with realism and resonance. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.