The occupants of Cell Block 11 take guards as prisoners to protest at the brutal conditions in their prison. The problems are many, be it overcrowding, awful food, the mixing of psychopaths with safe category prisoners, or the treatment dished out by sadistic guards. The inmates have had enough. So led by James V. Dunn (Neville Brand), the cons draw up a list of changes they want to see enforced, changes that liberal minded Warden Reynolds (Emile Meyer) actually concurs with. But as the clock ticks down the cons are beset with in fighting, while on the outside the press and politics start to take a hold.
Tho what is known as a "B" movie, and with a budget to match such a programmer, Riot In Cell Block 11 remains today one of the finest entries in the incarceration based genre of film. As relevant today as it was back then, the film has much grit and realism coursing thru its veins. Directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry/Escape From Alcatraz), it's written by Richard Collins (uncredited on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers), but it's with producer Walter Wanger that the core of the piece belongs. In 1951 Wanger was convicted of the attempted murder of Jennings Lang. Lang was having an affair with Wanger's wife, and when Wanger caught them in the act, he shot Lang in the groin. Wanger, after copping a plea of temporary insanity, served four months in San Quentin Prison, where his experiences there provided the genesis for Riot in Cell Block 11.
Shot in a semi-documentary style on location at California's Folsom Prison, Siegel and Wanger used actual inmates and guards to authenticate their movie. This was made possible by a certain Sam Peckinpah, who here was doing his first film work as a third assistant director. Legend has it that the Warden of Folsom knew "Bloody Sam's" family and thus allowed the makers into the prison to film. The film also benefits by not having big name stars filling out the cast, Brand & Meyer are joined by Frank Faylen, Leo Gordon, Robert Osterloh, Paul Frees & Whit Bissell. Solid performers to a man, but no headliners, and this helps, as they mix with the real crims and coppers, the realistic feel the makers created.
Siegel's movie isn't looking for simple answers to a persistent problem, it could have easily just gone for a death or glory violent piece of entertainment. But instead it's laced with intelligence and never sinks to preaching, in fact its finale is a rather sombre footnote to the whole episode. The characters are excellently drawn too, and it's good to see that Collins and co don't just make this a cons against authority piece, they clash with each other. Thus hitting home that not all the cons are singing off of the same page. As Warden Reynolds tells when asked about riot leader Dunn, "he's a psychopath, but he's an intelligent psychopath - just like many others on the outside" it's a telling piece of writing. As is the fact that there's no soft soaping either, there's no redemptive love interests or old sage lags to talk common sense into the ring leaders, it's tough uncompromising stuff.
And while we are noting the need for reform, feeling a bond with the prisoners complaints, we are then jolted to not forget that evil men do still reside here. Evil that is perfectly essayed by an excellent Leo Gordon (a real life San Quentin resident) as Crazy Mike Carnie. Watch out for one scene involving a call to a guards wife, the impact is like taking a blow from a claw hammer. You will understand why Siegel said Gordon was the scariest man he ever met.
A top draw movie that doesn't take sides, it has both sides of the fence firmly in its sights. With us the public observing from the middle. 10/10
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