Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)

Crime, Drama, Film-Noir
Neville Brand, Emile Meyer, Frank Faylen, Leo Gordon
Producer Walter Wanger, who had just been released from a prison term after shooting a man he believed was having an affair with his wife, wanted to make a film about the appalling ...
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  • 28 Feb 1954 Released:
  • 21 Apr 2014 DVD Release:
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  • Richard Collins (story), Richard Collins (screenpl Writer:
  • Don Siegel Director:
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Trailer:

Don Siegel's shockingly temperate issues movie under cover of prison-break actioner7/10

Riot in Cell Block 11 comes as a bit of a shock, but not because of its brutality (it's a cuddly little puppy compared to Jules Dassin's Brute Force). The shock is that Don Siegel, later to become inextricably associated with such violent and/or reactionary movies as his remake of The Killers, Madigan and Dirty Harry, turned out a temperate, balanced and humane look at prison conditions; another shock is that the movie emerged in the middle of a complacent decade not remembered for its sympathy to marginalized groups in American society.

The droning voice-over that opens the movie doesn't bode well: It warns of a wave of riots throughout penitentiaries across the country and even takes us to a criminal-justice convention in Toronto where the topic is aired. But soon we're inside Cell Block 11, part of a run-down, overcrowded institution whose warden (Emile Meyer) has been campaigning for reforms, to no avail. (Standing up for convicted criminals, then and now, is political suicide.) When opportunity knocks, the inmates take over the asylum. What they want is press coverage of their quite moderate demands: More elbow room, separate facilities for the mentally ill among them, job training. But they've taken guards as hostages, and threaten to execute them if their demands aren't met.

Leader of the rebels is Neville Brand, who tries to negotiate in good faith, but Meyer has one hand tied behind his back – by Frank Faylen, a hard-line state bureaucrat. Brand, too, has trouble keeping the prisoners in line, particularly those who see the riot less as a cause than as a chance for some cheap thrills. Siegel manages to keep the story taut within the claustrophobic confines of the prison and without too much in the way of splashy incident, until he brings it to a surprisingly rueful end. Somehow, he has managed to make an issues movie told almost solely through action.

Siegel's career proved that he had more sides to him than he's generally known for. He started out cutting montages in other directors' movies (Blues in the Night and The Hard Way among them); when he moved into directing, his early work showed range in style and tone: The period thriller The Verdict, the light-hearted noir The Big Steal, the eschatological drama Night Unto Night. Too bad we can't remember him by saying that he just got better and better, because, unfortunately, it just isn't so.

Minor classic that is still relevant today5/10

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 is an unusual film in that there are no heroes as such, the film is confined to one location, and there are no female characters. It's social significance is timeless, however - prisoners still riot today, ostensibly for the same reasons depicted in this movie: mistreatment, frustration, lack of stimuli - only the techniques used to quell the riots have changed (I don't think any commissioner would attempt to halt a riot these days by threatening the rioting prisoners with the noose!).

The film moves briskly along throughout it's short running time, and follows an intelligent and believable arc; prison guards are taken hostage, the initial riot spreads to other blocks within the prison, the prisoner's initial euphoria at overcoming the guards gradually dissolves as factions and in-fighting develop, and a psychopathic bully attempts to take control. The threat of violence is never far away in this film, and when it flares it is explosive and brutal.

While the acting is sometimes a little overwrought - which I guess is par for the course for a 50's B-movie - Neville Brand gives a convincing performance as the leader of the rioters; a violent pyschopath who has spent most of his adult life in prison, he is probably the closest this movie comes to a (anti-)hero.
Don Siegel's Potent Prison Piece.10/10
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
Not to be confused with 'Prisoner Cell Block H'.7/10

Gritty, realistic, semi-documentary style, early film from Don Siegel - two years before 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'. Essentially a social comment film about the poor conditions in prisons, 'Riot in Cell Block 11' doesn't force its point with cliches and manages to be an effective 'B' Movie.

The storyline starts quickly with a group of prisoners taking their warders hostage and barricading themselves in their cell block. Narrative then follows the proceedings to their conclusion, the action never straying from the prison itself.

Film succeeds mainly as a result of not having any forced characters - none of the prisoners are particularly likable and there are none of the usual dumb characterisations usually found in prison movies. The various authority figures deal with the situation they are presented with in a matter of fact way, and the films stark style remains through to the end.


As I was watching 'Riot in Cell Block 11' I was dreading some wise old sage prisoner coming out of the woodwork, due for parole the following week, who was somehow going to contrive to get himself shot just as the riot was coming to a close, to enjoy a lengthy death scene in someone's arms. Thank goodness nothing like this occurs.

Film made me think of 'Killer's Kiss', in that they are both 1950's low-budget movies with great potential, from a soon-to-be famous director. 'Riot in Cell Block 11' succeeds in all areas, and while its targets may be low it certainly deserves more recognition.
Exceptionally done10/10

An exceptional social issue film about prisoners rioting, trying to get the press to tell the stories of their mistreatment and trying to get the government to effect change in the prison system. Everything about it is absolutely top-notch: the screenplay and the direction are realistic and very, very taut. Don Siegel, I assume, didn't have a huge budget on this one, and he accomplishes an amazing lot. I love the way Richard Collin's script pits the rioters not only against the establishment, but also against each other. In a cell block full of so many differing personalities (or perhaps "criminalities" is a better word), they're not all likely to agree. The acting is almost universally excellent, with the one exception of Emile Meyer, who plays the Warden. He's a little creaky, but all the others, including Neville Brand, Leo Gordon (who had been a real prisoner in the prison seen in this film), and Robert Osterloh among many others, are pretty much perfect. One strong moment after another makes Riot in Cell Block 11 a
must-see gem, a low-budget masterpiece. 10/10.