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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
At the time this was produced (1953-54), the Production Code was in full force. The Code prohibited any direct references to homosexuality. That's why the dialog subtly refers to keeping young inmates away from "certain prisoners." See more »
Producer Walter Wanger wanted to make a film that exposed the appalling conditions of the prison community - and having been incarcerated himself after shooting a man he was sure was having an affair with his wife - had plenty of personal experience.
The resulting 1954 80 minute gritty drama, almost an unprecedented certificate 15, even now, was directed by Don Siegel. Following a popular format in those days, it starts off with a social documentary approach, complete with concerned voice-over - that this is a public announcement, part expose, part drama. It is not based on fact, at least not from one singular incident.
As you might expect, we follow prison guards (my title is the warning given to them, as they arm-up to thwart the riot), politicians and those who shape policy and of course, a handful of inmates. These provide everyday backbone; their tales are simple and uncomplicated and it's impossible to not side with them, or at least their plight. As ring- leaders take guards hostage, it becomes a nail-biting cat and mouse scenario, with Dunn (Neville Brand) producing ultimatums. Warden Emile Meyer wants negotiation, state officials want only swift force.
The film is well made and tautly directed, efficient but doesn't feel rushed. The version I saw on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) had a slight green cast but was generally good. I imagine that Riot In would have been compelling and possibly controversial viewing for cinema goers. It would have found favour especially amongst those who liked the hard crime film-noir type of dramas of the day, but without any of the glamour of femme fetales.
My guess is that whilst many prison dramas had been made at this point, they were character-lead and not out to socially comment. This would have been as hard-hitting as any TV '60 Minute' (etc) documentary and because it's still a good and credible film, it's still within the public domain, though is rarely shown and expensive to buy.
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