Blu-ray Shopping Bag: Riot in Cell Block 11 - Criterion -

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Blu-ray Shopping Bag: Riot in Cell Block 11 - Criterion

Ahead of its time?

By Robert T. Trate     April 29, 2014

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)
© Criterion Collection
I am always interested in the films that Criterion picks for their collection. These films usually have a cultural significance. So it was with little trepidation that I picked up Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11. Siegel, who would be better known for hard hitting films like Dirty Harry, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Shootist, established his motif and style with this particular film, which is why Criterion picked Riot in Cell Block 11 for their royal treatment (Spine #704). Yet, as I sat back and watched the film, I was shocked by how outdated some of it was. 

Now, I am child born of the seventies. The day to day life of 1950’s is something that I am only made aware of by history books and what my grandparents have spoken of. Thankfully, Criterion has supplied me with ample special features that go into depth about what was happening in the prison system at the time. Yet, am I not watching the film to be entertained? Don Siegel was trying to bring the hardships of prison life to a bigger audience. Now, the director had about 10 films to his credit at the time, but this film falls flat on many different levels. This insures its downfall to a younger audience and one that grew up watching films like Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz

The story begins with multiple news reel interviews about prisons that are suffering from various revolts. Much like Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), the film uses these actual events to tell its story. The prisoners revolt in cell block 11 because of the poor conditions in which they live. They don’t want to escape, they just want a better life. They claim they are mistreated. That they have nothing to do. They are “rotting inside” and that is all that happens to them. 

A film shot in 1954, with 1954’s prison problems is something a modern audience can’t relate to. The closest thing we have to a reference is Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. Sure, the prisoners weren’t treated great, but we saw them watch movies, play baseball, read books and so fourth. The head guard was a bit of prick, but these are criminals he is dealing with. We only witness one moment of a guard being a jerk in Riot in Cell Block 11 and that is when a prisoner asks if he can get word on his kid. The guards tell him no. Other than that, their cells are clean, the food looks okay, and we even see a baseball score board in the prison yard. That was something Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and the boys didn’t have. The establishment of these terrible conditions is needed for the justification of the prisoners’ actions. We get nothing in the first 20 minutes. 

To Don Siegel’s credit, he does, eventually, establish that many of these men live in crowded conditions. However, no one tries to escape and the leader of the prisoners, Dunn (Neville Brand), is smart enough to use the media to get what he wants. Dunn wants psychiatric help for the prisoners, schools where they can learn a trade, and just better living conditions. Over the course of the film, we learn that these things are unobtainable and just not going to happen. 


The cast is a great collection of character actors whom you will undoubtably recognize from something else. You will see actors from Innerspace, It’s a Wonderful Life, Stalag 17, Little House on the Prairie, The Honeymooners, and The Time Machine. Riot in Cell Block 11 is a different kind of film because it suffers from the time in which the story was told. Our modern world has in-depth looks at prisons and prison life, which were directly affected by the events of this film. That is its cultural significance, thus making it worth the watch.

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Showing items 1 - 2 of 2
ysidoro1701 4/29/2014 1:44:50 AM

Space Battleship Yamato is not a cartoon but a live action movie version made in 2010.  Im glad to see it get a US release. 

spacespartan 4/29/2014 8:01:28 PM

 And Francis the Talking Mule was a series of theatrical movies, not made for TV.



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