Saturday, May 23, 2020

Riot in Cell Block 11 (Don Siegel, 1954)

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) was conceived by producer Walter Wanger as both a highly personal movie and a major social plea to the American public. That it succeeded as both, while also existing on its own terms as a tough, fast-moving prison drama, stands as a testament not only to Wanger but to the superlative skills of writer Richard Collins and director Don Siegel.

Wanger was a prominent, long-time producer of such varied and excellent films as History is Made at Night (1937), Stagecoach (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Long Voyage Home (1940), Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947) and The Reckless Moment (1949). In the early 1950s, he produced movies for Allied Artists, the "prestige" unit of low-budget Monogram that would soon take over the Monogram name altogether. He was also married at the time to movie star Joan Bennett (the star of The Reckless Moment). When he discovered that Bennett was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang, Wanger confronted them in a parking lot and shot Lang in the groin, in one of the biggest Hollywood scandals up to that point. Wanger pled temporary insanity and was sentenced to four months in prison, ultimately serving 98 days.

Even though he served his time in a minimum-security institution, Wanger was so appalled by his experience--and by the idleness and humiliation he saw imposed on other criminals--that he decided he would make a picture that exposed prison conditions as a societal ill. The result was Riot in Cell Block 11, which drew enormous publicity when it was released and indeed got the country talking about prisons. The picture still packs a wallop not least because the topic of prison reform remains relevant today.

The key quality of this film is authenticity. It's present in everything from the setting to the visual style and even the cast, all in the service of themes that resonate with moral questions. Shot at a cost of $225,000 in an unused ward at California's Folsom State Prison, the movie starts with a narrated, documentary-style prologue that bleeds into scripted drama, a device that does well to set up the reality of the situation. Russell Harlan's crisp cinematography goes on to emphasize the geography of the prison grounds while characters run down corridors and interact with walls, doors and gates. As shot, these objects all give off a sense of visceral solidness, adding to the feel of realism. Further, the visual energy created by all the running and rioting gives the audience an impression of overall violence, even though the movie is actually surprisingly low on explicit carnage.

The story basically centers on the tension between prisoners who have revolted against their guards, and the warden and his army of men who face off against them. But the morality of the situation is not so simple. The prisoners want guarantees of reforms that the warden has previously asked of his superiors, to no avail. The demands seem reasonable. But are the prisoners' methods reasonable? Can they really be blamed? Richard Collins's screenplay also explores the shifting levels of power that various characters command throughout the story. There are equally reasonable and unreasonable people on both sides, from simpleton foot soldiers to more thoughtful leaders, and while this may sound overly schematic, it actually doesn't feel like the film is trying too hard to present both sides as good and bad. Instead, it all feels logical and credible.

The cast is a fascinating mix of actors, real prisoners, and in the case of Leo Gordon, both! Gordon had actually served time in Folsom for armed robbery. More recently, he had embarked on what would become a long screen career. But the Folsom Prison warden did not trust him and was so concerned by his presence that he forced Gordon to enter the prison each shooting day not with cast and crew but through a separate entrance where he would be subjected to an extra-careful search. He plays (superbly) the aptly-named "Crazy Mike Carnie." In the role of prisoner ringleader James Dunn is a perfectly cast Neville Brand, and playing the warden is the durable character actor Emile Meyer. Backing them up are an assortment of tough-guy actors of the era and even some real-life prisoners. Director Siegel later recalled, "I didn't know our hired prisoners from the real ones."

Even though the idea for the film sprang from Wanger's own incarceration, the events depicted are specifically based on a 1952 riot in Michigan's Jackson State Prison. Newsreel footage of that very riot begins the film. --TCM