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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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 »
Don Siegel's shockingly temperate issues movie under cover of prison-break actioner
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.
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