Early in his career, Don Siegel made his mark with this sensational and high-octane but economically constructed drama set in a maximum-security penitentiary. Riot in Cell Block 11, the brainchild of producer extraordinaire Walter Wanger, is a ripped-from-the-headlines social-problem picture about prisoners’ rights that was inspired by a recent spate of uprisings in American prisons. In Siegel’s hands, the film is at once brash and humane, showcasing the hard-boiled visual flair and bold storytelling for which the director would become known and shot on location at Folsom State Prison, with real inmates and guards as extras.
It really is a treat to have Don Siegel's iconic and brutal film 'Riot in Cell Block 11' in high definition and part of the Criterion Collection. The undertones, politics, and social issues that this movie brings to the screen are still big issues today, involving a topic that congress and politicians talk about every week. That topic is the unfair treatment of inmates in our prison system. Those problems haven't been fixed since 1954, which is when this movie was made. Siegel got the idea for this film when he spent time in prison for shooting his wife's secret lover.
While in prison, he noticed the brutal treatment of prisoners, including himself, whether it be poor food quality, abusive guards, or poor living conditions. So he set out to show the people of America just how flawed our prison system was, and yes, it did make an impact. Even more noteworthy, 'Riot in Cell Block 11' was iconic director Sam Peckinpah's first feature film. He was an assistant casting director, then went onto be a production assistant for a few other Siegel films, before becoming one of the best directors of all time.
Siegel also did something different in making his movie, which was considered very dangerous. He actually filmed the movie at Folsom State Prison with real guards and inmates in minor roles. Imagine how scary it was for the cast and crew to shoot a movie about a prison riot with actual prisoners. Even more interesting, one of the main actors here, Leo Gordon, was an inmate for a while for armed robbery, and the prison system didn't take too kindly to him being an actor in this movie.
'Riot in Cell Block 11' takes place at Folsom State Prison, where a tough inmate named James Dunn, stages a riot by taking some of the guards prisoner. He and his fellow inmates demand to talk with Warden Reynolds to ask for better living conditions and an end to the abusive guards beatings and torture of the inmates. The warden is decent guy who basically agrees with his inmates, but the senators and politicians are not going to bend so easily to their demands. Meanwhile, word has spread throughout the entire prison and other cell blocks start to riot, but are not as successful.
One of the inmates who goes by Carnie (Leo Gordon) and who is Dunn's second in command, would rather kill all of the guards rather than make a deal. And sooner than later, other inmates feel like they should be in charge and an inner conflict ensues. Most of the film focuses on talks between Dunn and Warden Reynolds, with some action sequences in between. These action sequences involve fighting and rushing the prison yard outside and look authentic and real. I'm just glad no real injuries or serious problems happened during production, because they definitely could have.
The film has a very realistic ending, which isn't always the happiest conclusion one might want. But I imagine if something like this were to happen today, it would go very similarly. In fact, some of these situations and characters in 'Riot in Cell Block 11' were taken from an equivalent situation in Michigan. Siegel's film is still as relevant today as it was sixty years ago and demands to be seen for its great acting, amazing camera work, and its message of basic human rights for inmates.
'Riot in Cell Block 11' has an impressive 1080p HD transfer presented here in 1.37:1 aspect ratio. According to Criterion, the film was researched to find the perfect print and found out that theaters showed the movie in aspect ratios ranging from 1.37:1 to 1.85:1. This new digital transfer is taken from the original 35mm negative and was restored in 2K. Tons of dirt, hair, warps, scratches, and other debris were all manually removes from the print, giving this 1954 film a pristine and clean look.
Overall, the image looks very smooth and clear without the digital car-wash going over it. it looks very natural with a great filmic quality. Some scenes appear to be darker than others, but that doesn't mess with how clear the image looks. The picture has quite a bit of depth actually. The black levels are always full and deep with the white and grays looking very well-balanced throughout. This is by far the best this movie has ever looked. Excellent transfer.
This release comes with a LPCM 1.0 audio mix, and for being a prison riot movie, I would have hoped for something a little more intense. That being said, Criterion has given us a true to form audio track from the film's original sound design, and according to Criterion, the soundtrack was remastered from a 35mm optical soundtrack negative with all of the hisses, crackles, and pops manually removed.
The dynamic range here is very limited. Don't expect a big sound at any given time here. The dialogue is always clear and easy to understand, and the sound effects sound natural, but don't pack an effective punch like they should, especially in the prison yard riot. The score doesn't do much either, as it is limited to one speaker. Don't get me wrong, the audio does sound excellent, I just wish it had a fuller and more robust nature to it.
Audio Commentary - This great commentary was recorded in 2014 with film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein. He discusses the making of the film, its impact it had back in 1954, the director and actor's careers and styles, and how critics met the movie upon release. This is a great and very informative commentary track if you are a fan of the film.
Radio Broadcast: The Challenge of Our Prisoners (HD, 60 mins.) - Here are some audio excerpts from the NBC radio documentary show, 'The Challenge of our Prisoners' with Peg and Walter McGraw. The discussions here that aired in 1953 are the same subjects and issues that Don Siegel brought up in his film.
Excerpt From Don Siegel: Director Read by Siegel's Son (HD, 13 mins.) - Don Siegel's son, Kristoffer Tabori, reads a chapter from Stuart Kaminsky's 1974 book 'Don Siegel: Director', that focused on making this movie. There is also an interview with actor Neville Brand who played Dunn in the film, along with some production photography.
Excerpt From 'A Siegel Film' Read by Siegel's Son (HD, 26 mins.) - Again, Kristoffer reads a chapter from his father's autobiography called 'A Siegel Film', that focuses on the movie.
Booklet - Criterion's illustrated booklet with an essay by Chris Fujiwara, a 954 article by Walter Wanger, and tribute to Don Siegel by Sam Peckinpah. In addition to that, all of the credits and technical information is listed as well.
Don Siegel's 'Riot in Cell Block 11' is still one of the best prison movies ever made. It brought up a lot of issues that continue to plague the inmates and jail system in modern times. The acting and camerawork are top notch. Criterion has knocked it out of the park with this release with top notch video and audio presentations, along with some excellent extras. This Blu-Ray/DVD combo is highly recommended.