Blu-ray Review: Riot in Cell Block 11 - The Criterion Collection

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The Don Siegel-directed prison drama Riot in Cell Block 11 was apparently quite a startling exposé upon its initial 1954 release. Clearly conveying a proactive prison reform message, Riot helped raise public awareness of the poor conditions and often unjust treatment of American penitentiary inmates. Recently issued as a dual-format Blu-ray/DVD package by The Criterion Collection, the black-and-white potboiler remains jarring, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Modern audiences will quite possibly snicker at some of the more dated elements (particularly a queasily homophobic subplot involving a “perverted” inmate), but Riot is still a bold statement. Many of the issues raised are still quite relevant 60 years later.

Don Siegel would go on to direct Invasion of the Body Snatchers only two years later, followed by several Clint Eastwood classics in the '70s (Dirty Harry among them). These are confrontational, socially-relevant films and, in that sense, Riot fits right in with his oeuvre. Shot on location within the confines of Folsom Prison, utilizing actual inmates and guards as extras, the film must be placed within its proper context to be fully appreciated in 2014. Stylistically, Riot's mixture of docu-drama (including exposition-drenched introductory narration, an appearance by real life Folsom Prison Director Richard A. McGee) with overheated, nearly-lurid pulp will likely seem anything but realistic.

But U.S.-produced prison melodramas of the era, up to the release of Riot, were largely removed from reality. Producer Walter Wanger set out to approach the subject differently. Inspired by the true events of a 1952 prison riot in Jackson, Michigan, Wanger had a clear mission. Having served several months in prison for shooting someone (a man he suspected of having had an affair with his wife), Wanger sought to expose a number of undesirable, unfair issues within the prison system. Overcrowding, lack of work programs, first-time inmates housed with lifers, and underpaid (and under-prepared) guards are all touched upon in Richard Collins' screenplay.

Riot in Cell Block 11 group (380x288).jpgTough-as-nails prisoner James V. Dunn (Neville Brand) plans and leads the riot referenced in the film’s title, working to reach a deal for improvements and policy change by negotiating with officials. Guards are held as hostages, prisoners savagely run wild, and law enforcement officers struggle to figure out how to quell the situation. At times, the “public service announcement” vibe gets a tad carried away, but if anything Riot understates the need for reform. This serves as a weakness because we don’t really see why the conditions were considered so poor to begin with. The solitary confinement cells seem rather luxurious compared to what is depicted in most modern prison stories. I guess the era’s standards of filmed entertainment got in the way of what could be depicted, but it still doesn’t make an especially convincing case for the supposedly inhumane treatment the prisoners were rioting against.

Criterion presents Riot in Cell Block 11 in open-matte 1.37:1, a framing choice that has caused some degree of controversy. While the Blu-ray booklet notes that the film was exhibited theatrical in “aspect ratios ranging from 1.37:1 to 1.85:1,” some researchers have compiled convincing evidence that 1.66:1 would’ve been the appropriate framing. Though that may understandably trouble those looking for the most accurate presentation, the clarity of the image as presented is very strong. The transfer was struck from the original 35mm negative. The LPCM mono soundtrack has been remastered and presented with care; no distortion or other troublesome issues are present. It’s a low-budget film from the ‘50s, don’t expect much more than clean dialogue and music by Herschel Burke Gilbert.

Riot in Cell Block 11 cover (177x220).jpgThe main attraction in Criterion’s supplements package is the audio commentary by Emory University film studies professor Matthew H. Bernstein. This is essential listening for anyone wishing to understand the full significance of Riot. Bernstein was ultra-prepared for this brand-new track. Regardless of your opinion of Riot’s relative entertainment value, the information-packed commentary will enhance your appreciation. The other features are audio-only, including excerpts from the 1953 NBC radio documentary series The Challenge of Our Prisons, the late Siegel’s son Kristoffer Tabori reading from the book Don Siegel: Director (by Stuart Kaminsky), and Tabori reading from his father’s autobiography, A Siegel Film.

Legendary director Sam Peckinpah made his professional film debut as an uncredited assistant casting director on Riot in Cell Block 11. That alone would at least guarantee footnote status for the film. But there are many more reasons that make Riot, a landmark in the subgenre of prison films, worth seeking out. The Criterion Collection’s 29-page booklet includes an essay by film author Chris Fujiwara and two reprinted articles. One, from 1954, is by producer Walter Wanger and the other is a 1974 appreciation of Don Siegel, written by Sam Peckinpah.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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