Sunday, October 18, 2015

#704: Riot in Cell Block 11

(Don Siegel, 1954)

What a find. Riot in Cell Block 11 is a certain kind of film Criterion puts out rarely, but always with impressive confidence and great value to the marketplace. Created as a b-level social picture in the wake of a series of prison riots in the early 1950s that stemmed from poor treatment of the prisoners, this is a lesser-known early picture from Don Siegel, who would go on to direct Criterion release The Killers before producing the higher profile Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz. It's not the best-acted movie I've ever seen, and it can often feel a bit preachy in its consistent social message. But it also rings just as true today as it did in its time.

The style of the film is a reminder that throughout film history movies that were considered lesser or even exploitative often had more to say about the ills of society than the prestige pictures of their era. The movie that won best picture the year Riot in Cell Block 11 was released was another future Criterion film, Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, and while I'm not here to discount that masterpiece, I do think the message of Siegel's film is more complicated and more relevant in today's America.

The scenes with the warden are generally didactic, but it's the final scene, in which the warden explains to the leader of the riot that he has been betrayed, where the message is most loud and clear. It's the truth no one wants to believe but everyone should see as obvious: riots work. They work because people are afraid of society crumbling, and part of the way society stays afloat is that the people with less and who are forced to stay that way agree to keep the peace (at least generally speaking). That detente is broken only when things get so bad that the system needs a virus to run through its body and clear out all the toxins. In Riot in Cell Block 11 (as in the US of the early 50s), the oppressed community was prisoners, growing up in LA it was black people in the early 90s. As the movie shows, riots don't solve everything, but they do bring the kind of attention to oppression that only violence can bring.

People who think prisoners should rot in jail for whatever they did to get there will probably be able to ignore the message of Riot in Cell Block 11. For people like me, the film is preaching to the choir. Yet there is a whole middle of the population that simply hasn't considered these kinds of issues because they didn't need to. These are the people Cell Block 11 was made for, and just as the political message of riots had to be draped in violence, so too does a message such as this need to be drenched in noir and simmering with pulpy aggression. Does Riot in Cell Block 11 raise to the level of many of the classics in the Collection? Of course not. But it doesn't need to - it does what it was meant to do, now just as well as in 1954. This is a vital thread of film history in the American system, and this particular film represents one of the best, making it a great addition.

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