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Riot in Cell Block 11: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual-Format Edition Review

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) movie poster Riot in Cell Block 11

Theatrical Release: February 28, 1954 / Running Time: 81 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Don Siegel / Writer: Richard Collins (story & screenplay)

Cast: Neville Brand (James V. Dunn), Emile Meyer (Warden Reynolds), Frank Faylen (Commissioner Haskell), Leo Gordon (Crazy Mike Carnie), Robert Osterloh (Colonel John Vetter), Paul Frees (Monroe), Don Keefer (Newspaperman), Alvy Moore (Gator), Dabbs Greer (Schuyler), Whit Bissell (Snader), James Anderson (Acton), Carleton Young (Captain Barrett), Harold J. Kennedy (Graphic Reporter), William Schallert (First Reporter), Jonathan Hole (Russell), Robert Patten (Frank), William Phipps (Mickey), Joel Fluellen (Al), Roy Glenn (Delmar), Joe Kerr (Mac), John Tarangelo (Manuel), Robert Burton (Ambrose), James Matthews (Narrator), Richard A. McGee (Himself); Uncredited: Thomas Browne Henry (Governor), Ward Wood (Bacon)

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Riot in Cell Block 11 is an unusual choice for The Criterion Collection. This obscure 1954 American drama hails from filmmakers that are not particularly well-known or widely respected.
It's not an especially ambitious, technically innovative, historically significant, or influential production. To boot, it's basically a B-movie and though there's certainly an audience for those, it's not one that Criterion caters to with any frequency.

Based closely on a real incident that occurred in Jackson, Michigan two years earlier, the efficient Riot wastes little time before living up to its title. A scruffy inmate attacks a night guard, whose keys he uses to free his fellow convicts. Soon, the whole Block 11 is free and making a mess outside of their cramped cells. A prisoner named Dunn (Neville Brand) becomes the spokesman for the riot, which sees the men taking guards hostage and demanding the press' presence. Sure enough, members of the media soon arrive, their attention captured. Also on scene is Warden Reynolds (Emile Meyer), who's weary of this predicament but open to a little civil negotiation.

Dunn uses words to rally and unify the rioting convicts of Cell Block 11.

Dunn, who's been in and out of jail since he was a teenager, presents a list of demands which he insists that the Warden and Governor sign off on. These inmates want their cell block remodeled with more room and more light. They also want to be taught a trade to prepare them for life on the outside.

A meal at Block 4 escalates the riot as inmates from other blocks come over to 11 to participate in the stand-off. We come to know a number of the inmates and guards. They include a war hero Colonel who is reluctant to get on board with the plan as his parole approaches. A number of the prisoners are less educated and level-headed. They should be receiving psychiatric hospital care, but aren't. These include "Crazy" Mike Carnie (Leo Gordon), who becomes a key figure in the divisive revolt.

While the Warden, who has been asking for some of the same renovations for years, is prepared to agree to the group's terms, the governor drags his feet, not wanting to create a template for the other jails in his jurisdiction to follow. In the meantime, state police officers are called in and members of the fire department turn the hoses on the rioters. When responders start firing warning shots, the outmatched inmates vow to kill one guard for every inmate who dies. Secretly, Commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen), recovering from a knife to his chest, considers a dynamite explosion in lieu of negotiation.

Veteran convict Dunn (Neville Brand) speaks on behalf of the rioting prisoners. Warden Reynolds (Emile Meyer) and the wounded Commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen) don't see eye to eye on agreeing to the rioters' demands.

Presumably meant to be a hard-hitting, soul-searching exposé of the penal system's problems, Riot comes across as staged, subdued, and artificial today.
Its calls for prison reform may be timely and reasonable, but the movie is remarkably hokey and heavy-handed. It feels as realistic as "Dragnet", the 1950s TV series whose success seemed to pave the way for such an enterprise.

Riot is one of the few theatrical credits of screenwriter Richard Collins, who passed away last year, 17 months shy of his 100th birthday. Collins wrote for and/or produced television shows like "The Untouchables", "Daniel Boone", and "Bonanza" all the way through "Matlock" and "Diagnosis: Murder." He brings a 1950s TV drama sensibility to this film, one of many nominated for BAFTA awards that year.

Don Siegel, who would later direct Clint Eastwood in such films as Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz, picked up a Director's Guild of America nomination for Riot, the only competitive honor of his forty-year career that ended, oddly enough, with him executive-producing "The Jeffersons."

There are no huge names in the cast, but viewers seasoned in 1950s entertainment might recognize a number of these actors from other things. For instance, I found it tough to buy Alvy Moore as one of the scariest inmates because I recognized him for his work as a roving reporter in the recurring "What I Want to Be" segment from "The Mickey Mouse Club." Others as widely exposed to Disney as myself will recognize the name Paul Frees, who plays Monroe, the night guard who becomes Hostage #1. Frees was the voice of Ludwig von Drake and of the Ghost Host from the parks' Haunted Mansion ride. You can probably find other connections and credits that resonate for you, as the bulk of the cast had long, productive careers that inevitably put them in some classic films, like It's a Wonderful Life, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to name just a few.

Though Criterion has moved to Dual-Format Editions, charging their usual Blu-ray prices for sets that hold all of the content on both Blu-ray and DVD, they seem to be retooling that strategy. Riot gets a separate DVD-only edition too (the movie's overdue first), with a $24.95 list price that's significantly lower than the combo's $39.95 SRP. Both versions are released today with spine number 704.

Riot in Cell Block 11: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual Format Edition cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.37:1 Original Aspect Ratio
BD: 1.0 LPCM (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: April 22, 2014 / Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Two single-sided discs (1 BD-50 and 1 DVD-9)
Clear Keepcase
Also available as standalone DVD ($24.95 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Films released in 1954 dealt with the industry's transition from 1.37:1 Academy to widescreen aspect ratios in different ways. The booklet states that Criterion found out Riot was exhibited in ratios ranging from 1.37:1 to 1.85:1. They present the film exclusively in the squarish former and that looks right. The Blu-ray's picture quality is practically unblemished. The photography lacks focus at times, but the element remains clean and filmic throughout. Criterion's reputation precedes them; if any other studio put out a minor 60-year-old film looking this terrific, I'd feel compelled to lavish them with praise. This transfer simply meets one's high expectations for the boutique label.

There isn't much to say about the monaural soundtrack, but it too does a good job of hiding its age. The Blu-ray's LPCM 1.0 mix stays intelligible and even throughout. As always, Criterion includes English SDH subtitles on the film.

A behind-the-scenes photo from the filming of "Riot in Cell Block 11" livens up Kristoffer Tabori's reading of a book about his father, director Don Siegel. A straightforward shot of the cell block in which the film is set serves as the menu image on DVD and Blu-ray.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The all-audio bonus features begin with a brand new audio commentary by film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein. Bernstein wrote a biography of producer Walter Wanger, so he's most qualified to speak on him. But he's got plenty to say about everyone involved in this film, which he explains was inspired by both the Jackson riot and Wanger's own Billy Wilder-inspiring run-in with the law that saw him serve four months in prison.
It's an academic track chockfull of information and void of significant lulls.

Kristoffer Tabori reads an excerpt from A Siegel Film (25:07), the autobiography of his father, director Don Siegel. Fittingly, Tabori reads the chapter dedicated to Riot in Cell Block 11 in its entirety. It's another take on some of the same information dispensed in the commentary, going into greater detail about the conception and casting of the project and revealing an inexperienced Sam Peckinpah getting hired as a gofer.

Next up comes an excerpt from Stuart Kaminsky's 1974 book Don Siegel: Director (13:01). Again, Tabori reads the chapter dedicated to Riot in Cell Block 11, another text that has clearly informed Bernstein's commentary, over stills from the film and a few behind-the-scenes shots.

Finally, there is a seemingly complete 1953 episode of "The Challenge of Our Prisons" (59:07), an NBC radio program from journalists Peg and Walter McGraw. The third installment in a series of reports, it's a rather dull presentation that collects remarks from wardens and former inmates alike about issues facing prisons (such as whether or not to allow inmates modeling clay). Upping the relevance factor, this episode details the Jackson riot whose circumstances extensively align with Riot in Cell Block 11's plot.

An excerpt of sounds and score plays through once over a static shot of the prison for the Blu-ray and DVD's main menu. The Blu-ray supports bookmarking and gives you the chance to resume playback.

Inside one of Criterion's characteristic clear keepcases, across from the two discs (negative images of each other), we find a substantial booklet. Beyond the typical information (film credits, acknowledgements, transfer and aspect ratio information), the nicely illustrated 30-page booklet includes the essay "States of Exception" by film historian Chris Fujiwara. It gives you a good overview of the film's creation and close analysis, while placing the production foremost into the context of director Siegel's career.

Following those, we get reprints of two articles. In "West Points of the Underworld", a February 1954 Look magazine article, Riot producer Walter Wanger discusses his prison experience, advocates the need for reform, and promotes his new movie, the Folsom production of which he describes. Two pages go to "Don Siegel and Me", an excerpt of Sam Peckinpah's Don Siegel: Director afterword in which the legendary director of The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs recalls getting his start as a dialogue director under the angry Siegel on Riot.

State police officers wielding guns move in on rioting prisoners brandishing homemade weapons in "Riot in Cell Block 11." Neither the Warden (Emile Meyer) nor Dunn (Neville Brand) is pleased with the outcome of the prison riot.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Admission into The Criterion Collection should raise the profile and status of Riot in Cell Block 11, a prison reform drama that is very much a product of the 1950s.
The studio doesn't hold back, treating this lesser film to the first-rate restoration and substantial bonus features it gives just about every title it handles. There's definitely enough of interest here to warrant a curiosity viewing, especially if you're familiar with or fond of any of the key personnel on either side of the camera. But in the pool of Criterion releases, this clearly belongs in the shallow end.

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Related Reviews:
New: The 400 Blows • The Great Beauty • Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom • Fargo
1950s Criterion: On the Waterfront • Kiss Me Deadly • 3:10 to Yuma • A Night to Remember • The Killing
Neville Brand: That Darn Cat! | Emile Meyer: Paths of Glory | Frank Faylen: It's a Wonderful Life • Funny Girl
Leo Gordon: The Intruder • Hondo | Paul Frees: The First Easter Rabbit • Jack Frost | Alvy Moore: The Mickey Mouse Club
Escape from New York • The Experiment • Captain Phillips • Best of Warner Bros.: Thrillers

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Reviewed April 22, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1954 Allied Artists Pictures Corporation and 2014 The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.