Riot in Cell Block 11
One of the biggest topical holes in the history of American movies is prison. As a country, we lock up more individuals than anyone else, but our filmmakers are loath to actually deal with that. You can count on one or two hands the number of films that truly immerse us in the experience of being locked up for an extended period of time, of going to prison in America. It’s as if we’re so ashamed of our wholesale imprisonment of lower-class and non-white individuals that we, collectively, have chosen not to document the process.
"Riot in Cell Block 11" is one of very, very few movies that cuts against that trend. Here’s a film that, even within the confines of a riot-based action-movie, is about the minutiae of going to prison. Director Don Siegel ("Charley Varrick," "Dirty Harry," and innumerable other genre classics) builds every scene around the little details: The terrible food, the sneering guards, the cramped quarters. This 80-minute movie is ostensibly a melodrama detailing the process and results of a riot. But these down-to-earth touches, these grace notes -- the film was actually shot on location at Folsom Prison -- elevate it. Here’s a historical document hidden within an actioner.
The extras Criterion has packed alongside "Riot" are primarily aimed at Siegel fans. The audio commentary, recorded by film expert Matthew Bernstein, tackles wide-ranging topics like the acting and the critical reaction to the film, but it’s most alive when speaking about Siegel’s artistic contributions. There’s also a reading from Siegel’s autobiography, recorded by his son Kristoffer Tabori. The reading lasts about 30 minutes, and comprises the sections in Siegel’s book that deal directly with "Riot." Tabori also recorded another reading, from a book-length study of Siegel’s career by author Stuart Kaminsky. This second reading lasts about 15 minutes, and primarily revolves around the actual on-location shooting of this movie.
There’s one extra, though, that deal more with the issues the film raises than with the people who made the film. Included on the disc is an hour-long radio broadcast, sourced from NBC Radio in the early 50s, entitled "The Challenge of our Prisoners." It reminds you that this is more than just a tough, pared-down action movie from one of our great masculine auteurs. It reminds us that, more than 50 years later, "Riot in Cell Block 11" is still one of the only times that the American cinema has dared to grapple honestly with the prospect of imprisonment.
"Riot in Cell Block 11"