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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 conditions he saw while he was incarcerated. He got together with director Don Siegel and they came up with this film, in which several prison inmates, to protest brutal guards, substandard food, overcrowding and barely livable conditions, stage an uprising, in which most of the inmates join, and take several guards hostage. Negotiations between the inmates and prison officials are stymied, however, by politicians interfering with the prison administration, and by dissension and infighting in the inmates' own ranks. Written by
Producer Walter Wanger served a four-month prison term for shooting agent Jennings Lang, whom he suspected of having an affair with his wife Joan Bennett. The experiences he had in prison so unnerved him that upon his release he resolved to make a film about what prison was "really" like, not the typical Hollywood prison film made by people who had never been anywhere near a prison or who had never had any experience with the justice system. He shot the film at California's Folsom Prison and used both guards and inmates as extras and technical advisers. Wanger's cast and crew also differed from the Hollywood "norm"; among them were actor Neville Brand, decorated Army veteran of WW II who earned a Silver Star in the Allied European campaign; actor Leo Gordon, another combat veteran who had once served a stretch in Folsom Prison for armed robbery; and then-production assistant Sam Peckinpah, whose father, Denver Peckinpah, was a widely known and respected law-and-order judge in northern California (and whose name alone was enough to get the warden to allow the film to be shot in Folsom). See more »
Hook the 80-minutes to a generator and LA would light up for a week. Staging action at Folsom Prison replete with their convicts was a real coup. But the action is not meaningless or action for its own sake. Instead the raw physicality underlines sheer frustration and tactical maneuvering between fed-up cons and hamstrung officials. Prison conditions are woeful, while administrators have little money to fix them. So now there's a trash filled riot raining down. Still, it's the 1950's, so don't expect language or conduct that's too explicit
Surprisingly, there are no heroes on either side, nor is anyone particularly likable. And thank goodness, movie stars were not hired for the leads. That would have gotten in the way of the message. Instead, it's a familiar if no-name cast. But Brand and Gordon are chillingly perfect in their tough-guy roles, while Meyer delivers subtly as the conflicted warden.
Also, don't expect one side or the other to be vindicated. Instead, both are shown as on the receiving end of a John Q. Public that basically doesn't care what prison conditions are like or what it takes to maintain them. That's the movie's pointto alert the public of the time as to why prison riots occur. And also, to humanize the cons without sugar coating them.
Essentially leaders on both sides act rationally given their aims and needs. (Except for Crazy Mike who should be institutionalized.) Director Siegel films in fairly straightforward style, putting camera emphasis where it belongs. On the whole, there may be more theatrical or bigger budget prison movies, e.g. Brute Force (1948). But none reveals more about dynamics between state, warden, guards, and cons. Besides it's a heckuva compelling movie despite the passing decades. And thanks producer Wanger for turning your own stint in jail into a public benefit.
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