Fed up with the inhumane prison living conditions, a general prison riot breaks out, leading to hostage-taking, a stand-off with the guards and eventual negotiations with the prison administration officials.
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
This film was based on an April 1952 riot at the State Prison in Jackson, Michigan in which the inmates held nine guards hostage for five days. Newsreel footage of that riot (and others) begins the film. See more »
When the state police force the convicts back into the prison by launching a barrage of tear gas at them, the police move forward, into the area being bombarded. The convicts are overcome by the gas, but the police aren't - even though they're not wearing gas masks and are enshrouded by the same gas the convicts are. See more »
The following acknowledgment appears after the opening credits: "We wish to thank Mr. Richard A. McGee and his staff of the California Department of Corrections, Warden Heinze, Associate Warden Ryan, Correctional officers and the inmates of Folsom Prison for their co-operation." 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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