Monday, August 31, 2009

Region 2 Cinema: Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)

Last Thursday, when TCM was running their Summer Under the Stars salute to Ida Lupino, I posted a quick comment on Facebook about Ida…well, more like a timeworn joke that I’ve been using since this blog’s been in operation, and I don’t intend to stop now. (It goes: “Ida Lupino was fond of calling herself ‘the poor man’s Bette Davis.’ Thank heavens I’m a poor man!”) Peter Nellhaus of Coffee coffee and more coffee also contributed some trivia that Lupino wrote off her directorial skills by remarking she was “the poor man’s Don Siegel” at a time “when Siegel was hardly raking in the dough.” What I’m trying to say in a typically longwinded and roundabout fashion is that Peter’s observation made me curious to sit down with a Siegel film and his 1954 prison exploitation vehicle Riot in Cell Block 11 got the nod. (Warning: the following review does contain spoilers.)

Technically, it’s more Walter Wanger’s exploitation film that Siegel’s; the independent producer was inspired to make the film after being appalled by the conditions in prison while serving a four-month stretch in a minimum security facility for shooting Jennings Lang, the agent—and lover—of his wife Joan Bennett. With a story and screenplay by HUAC fink Richard Collins, Wanger and Siegel create a “message film” that’s fairly effective despite its low-budget; it was filmed at Allied Artists (formerly Monogram), better known in the movie biz as the stomping grounds of the Bowery Boys and Bomba the Jungle Boy.

The film starts out with a documentary feel as it briefly outlines the problem of prison riots breaking out in various penitentiaries across the nation, accompanied by the stentorian tones of narrator James Matthews; there’s even a brief commentary by Richard A. McGee—spokesman for the American Prison Association—who, when asked about the cause of such riots responds that it’s the “short-sighted neglect of our penal institutions, mounting to almost criminal negligence,” Then, taking a Best-Western-Central approach (“There’s plenty of blame to go around!”) to those who must shoulder the blame for such demonstrations, McGee tabs “public leaders” (governors, legislators, etc.) and even the general public as those responsible. (This is your first clue that this is not a major studio production—they probably would have excised McGee’s opinion from the final cut—Allied Artists was only concerned about the bottom line, and was handsomely rewarded since Riot was a huge hit at the box office.) “I abhor riot and disorder,” he intones seriously, “but until something is done to correct the situation, we will not see the end of prison troubles.”

Having established McGee’s anti-riot stance, the action then switches to a facility that chooses to remain nameless (although I’ll be more than happy to tell you it was filmed at Folsom State Prison in California); the prisoners in Cell Block 11 (notorious for its population of inmates who have gone a “little funny in the head,” to use a Strangelovian expression) have just been fed and are being locked down for the night when a rookie guard named Monroe (Paul Frees) is overcome by one prisoner (Alvy Moore, a.k.a. Hank-friggin’-Kimball— ferchrissake, how did he get locked up in there? Run over a kid with a tractor?) and the remaining screws (there are only four assigned to that section that evening, due to a manpower shortage) are quickly rounded up by a gang under the command of the ringleader, James Dunn (Neville Brand). The prison warden, Reynolds (Emile Meyer), is anxious to prevent any of the guards from being killed and he agrees to negotiate with Dunn and listen to the inmates’ demands (inhumane living conditions, deplorable food, brutal treatment by guards), a list composed by a prisoner known as “The Colonel” (Robert Osterloh). The negotiations undergo further problems when other cells begin riots in solidarity (Dunn has shrewdly pled the inmates’ cause to the media) and Reynolds finds himself having to call in the militia, which results in the shooting death of a prisoner. After successfully putting down an insurrection fostered by an inmate (Leo Gordon) who’s seeks to usurp control from Dunn, the inmates are informed that the governor has acquiesced to their demands and signed an agreement as such. Though Reynolds is sympathetic with many of the inmates’ grievances (he’s been talking himself blue in the face for years trying to get many of the listed complaints changed), he warns Dunn that these problems won’t be addressed overnight…and is proved right in the film’s ironic conclusion.

Riot boasts a cast that only a B-movie fan could love; in addition to those already named the players include Frank Faylen (as a career politician/commissioner who’d rather hose the prisoners down and be done with it—how anyone thought the man who played Herbert T. Gillis [“I gotta kill that boy…I just gotta!”] could be an effective negotiator is a new one on me), Don Keefer, Dabbs Greer, Whit Bissell, Carleton Young, Roy Glenn and TDOY fave William Schallert. Brand leads the acting honors as the dedicated Dunn—though you sort of have to wonder why a group would allow him to handle things, unless they were absent the night they showed D.O.A. to the prisoners. Gordon’s character is named “Crazy” Mike Carnie, and an unknown guard plays him a compliment when he remarks “’Crazy’ is the nicest thing you can say about him.” (It must have been “Old Home Week” for Gordon working on this film; he served a stretch at Folsom one time for armed robbery.) Collins’ script is very well-written; it doesn’t take sides, for one thing—demonstrating not only the tension between the authorities and inmates but the exacerbations between the inmates themselves. Siegel, in rising above the budget limitations (it’s a little difficult to pick out who’s who in the opening scenes because the cell block seems to be lit with matches—but this works to the movie’s benefit when one of the inmates’ grievances is the lack of adequate light in the corridors) demonstrates why he would soon develop a cult of admirers…and why producer Wanger tabbed him to direct his production of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). (The production assistant on Riot was a then-unknown Sam Peckinpah—who was able to use a little clout with his old man, a respected law-and-order judge in northern California, in greasing the wheels and allowing the movie to filmed at Folsom.)

I purchased this DVD last year from Xploited Cinema (it was released on disc in July 2007 by our old friends Suevia Films, as Motín en el Pabellón 11: “4000 hombres enjaulados!” screams the cover), a great place to find Region 2 discs—I had heard that they were going out of business, but was surprised to find they were still keeping the doors open since my recent eBay purchase of The Mob (1951) came from there as well. A quick e-mail to inquire about the health of the business produced an equally rapid reply from Tony, who told me that they are indeed folding up shop but not until they liquidate their inventory. Sadly, Riot is no longer available for purchase but if you do a little looking around you might find something to take home with you. Riot has been released on VHS by Republic Home Video, and I’m sure Paramount (who now owns the Republic catalog) will get around to releasing it on Region 1 DVD about the time they release the Republic serials as well.

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