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Ex- football star Jim Brown gives perhaps his best screen performance in Riot, a gritty prison break-out drama filmed soon after the abandonment of the Production Code. Real prisons had provided locations for previous Big House sagas, but producer William Castle also hired dozens of Arizona State Penitentiary convicts as extras and even enlisted prison Warden Frank E. Eyman to play himself. Castle, the famous showman responsible for gimmick-laden horror films, played up the authenticity angle to generate publicity for Riot, going so far as to hold its official premiere right in the prison where it was filmed.
Author Frank Elli based his novel on actual events in Minnesota. As scripted by James Poe, it plays as a more realistic spin on a familiar crime genre. Although he has only a few months left on his sentence, convict Cully Briston (James Brown) assists ringleader Red Fraker (Gene Hackman) by collecting gasoline for the planned breakout. He's present when Red's partners take over the cellblock and seize hostages, and has no choice but to join the scheme. But when the alarm is sounded too soon, the prison's outer walls bristle with armed guards waiting for an excuse to open fire. Red buys time for the breakout by claiming that the disturbance is a protest to improve conditions in the jail.
Red, Cully and Bugsy (Mike Kellin) open up an abandoned escape tunnel that's been waiting unused for years under the prison auditorium. Cully must shield the hostage guards and office personnel from reprisals by some of the more violent inmates, in particular the crazed and unpredictable Surefoot (Ben Carruthers). Cully also has the cooks brew up several vats of "Raisin Jack", a quick-fermenting alcoholic brew. The wild celebrating that follows convinces the warden that the protest is really a riot, a fact that becomes obvious when inmates begin severely beating comrades revealed as snitches by prison paperwork. As the warden prepares to take back the prison compound by force, Red tells his closest collaborators that only they are going to break out through the tunnel, and make a desperate bid for freedom.
William Castle's waning career at Paramount produced two profitable hits, Roman Polanski's masterpiece Rosemary's Baby, and this less prestigious thriller. Riot's higher budget and authentic location distinguish it from exploitation product, but its main purpose seems to be to push the prison subgenre to the new limits of "R"-rated filmmaking. The violence is brutal, with unflinching depictions of a knifing and a throat slitting. When the homemade brew flows and the prison party begins, star Jim Brown takes a tour of the so-called "Queen's Row" where homosexual inmates dance in drag. A gay inmate named Mary (Clifford David) tries to entice Brown into his cell.
This explicit presentation of prison culture makes Riot seem more shocking than it is. Celebrated screenwriter James Poe keeps a lid on the profanity, although some genuine tough talk slips through. Despite the authenticity of the location and the sweaty faces of real cons, the name actors that carry the story fall into neat genre types -- the charismatic brains of the operation (Hackman), the reluctant strong man (Brown), the wisecracking sidekick (Kellin), the psycho (Ben Carruthers).
Underrated director Buzz Kulik (The Explosive Generation; Warning Shot) uses the confining prison spaces to great advantage. The convicts rush to and fro but always seem trapped in a concrete maze of narrow corridors and windowless rooms. Claustrophobia alone would seem sufficient to motivate the aberrant behavior on view.
The broad cooperation of the Arizona State Penitentiary probably wouldn't have been possible just two years later, after the bloody prison riot at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. The one prison guard we meet is a vindictive coward who falsely accuses Culley of insubordination. Prison security is seen as slack, when arguing guards break protocol with the use of keys. The prison warden (playing himself, apparently) never intends to do anything except put down the riot with brute force. Although that may be the tough-guy image the warden wanted to project, it doesn't account for a dialogue exchange among the prisoners -- the editor of the prison paper asserts that the warden has his job for life, and that neither the governor nor even the President can remove him from his post. One interesting twist sees Gene Hackman's ringleader Red let his new status as a big-shot prison rights negotiator go to his head. Culley has to remind him that their only real goal is to "crash out". The chances of a successful escape are so low that the term "crash out" carries its suicidal connotation from the classic film noir High Sierra.
Critics described Riot as realistic and intense, but not particularly suspenseful. A few thought the gore was too explicit and others panned the frequent reprises of a country ballad sung by Bill Medley for transition scenes of Jim Brown walking from one prison building to another. But the critics liked Jim Brown's depiction of Culley, who becomes increasingly resigned to the poor prospects for survival yet remains loyal to his fellow escapees. William Castle's expertise with ballyhoo backfired somewhat when he publicly touted his choice of hiring real convicts. About a dozen are credited in the main titles, and a few even have on-camera lines. This attracted the attention of the Screen Actors' Guild, prompting Castle to go on record with the information that the convict actors had been paid full SAG contract wages.
Olive Films' DVD of Riot is a sharp and bright enhanced encoding of this old-fashioned prison tale. The scenes on Queen's Row were frequently excised for 1970s television screenings, but they're presented intact here. Roman Polanski's talented composer Krzysztof Komeda (Rosemary's Baby; The Fearless Vampire Killers) provides the sparse music score and the fatalistic ballad sung by Bill Medley. A bright future was predicted for the Polish composer, but he died only a few months after Riot was released, at age 37.
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T'was Ever Thus.