Monday, March 14, 2016

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)

Prison movies lend themselves really well to black and white cinematography. It must be all the concrete walls, metal bars, drab uniforms and bleak situations.

This one's filmed in the very real Flosom State Prison, and directed by one of my favs, Don Siegal. How can you lose with the same guy who did Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and his other on-location prison film, Escape from Alcatraz (1979)?

No big stars here; the only recognizable name to me was character actor and figure of authority extraordinaire Whit Bissell (seems like he was in every other TV show or movie from the 50s or 60s).

The rest of the actors were compelling, and not a single matinee idol among 'em, which added to the realism. We don't really have a protagonist, more like major players: the warden and three inmates, who run the gamut from good, bad, and sorta in between.

The leader of the riot (Neville Brand) is the latter. He's curio-leading character for the studio-era,  because despite organizing the uprising to draw attention to the disciple conditions in prison, it's explicitly stated that he's homicidal and needs psychiatric treatment. As head honcho he does some pretty rotten things to get the governor to give in to the prisoners demands for improved living conditions. The worst is saved for the climax, when he places ties captured guards and a protesting prisoner right in front of a wall due to be detonated by the unknowing and desperate state police.

The unfortunate prisoner who just narrowly misses getting killed (Robert Osterloh) is the "good" con. You always have to include at least one of them in a prison film: the straight guy who once went wrong, but is otherwise upstanding. He's the voice of reason, and is ultimately rewarded for his morals (and not being a 3 time loser) by getting paroled. It helps that he isn't an instigator of the riot, but later assists his fellow inmates not through violence, but through words, drafting their demands in acceptable language.

On the opposite end of the morality spectrum is the Big Bad prisoner (Leo Gordon), a rotter who's most excited about killing the guards held hostage. He's there to make the other two guys look good in comparison.

And what does it say about ye olde Hollywood cinema that this, a prison movie, contains the most integrated cast I've yet seen from a 1950s movie? And does a good job not specifically antagonizing either the guards, the warden or the inmates?

However, it is one of those 1950s message movies. Speechy and preachy, but at least it has the decency of being exciting, intercutting assorted monologues about prison reform with more rioting or other acts of violence. Doesn't hurt that prison reform is still a pressing issue, and the prisoners demands (overcrowding, job training, abuse, etc.) are still relevant.

No women were seen until the last five minutes, and those were the guards wives; before that all we heard were their voices. Their primary purpose is to be worried about their husbands.

The ending is refreshing, neither nihilist (Brute Force), or overly happy in an "everything is gonna be alright" sort of way.The riot doesn't lead to direct or major changes in the system, but it does draw attention to the issue through media. If there's any hissable villain, it's those sons-of-bitches that won't cough up the money for prison reform.

Surprisingly Mature might be my take on the material, what with its onscreen toilets, awareness of the power of journalistic representation, and it's insistence on being an expose. Also surprising is the movie's reference (very very implied) to prison rape (though considering how only one inmate is singled out as a perpetrator, and this being the 50s, it could just be referring to the threat of the "predatory gay" to prim, proper, and paranoid 50s morals).

Other good stuff:
Nice black and white cinematography, with exciting framing.

Less a fan of:
Music is a bit overblown, but that's to be expected from a low-buget IMPORTANT prison film.

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