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Riot in Cell Block 11

Posted by martinteller on July 18, 2013

Inmates James Dunn (Neville Brand) and “Crazy” Mike Carnie (Leo Gordon) organize a takeover of cell block 11, managing to capture four guards.  The prisoners have demands: a remodel of the block, elimination of leg irons, better treatment by the guards, and putting the mentally deranged in a psychiatric ward where they belong.  Warden Reynolds (Emile Meyer) is sympathetic to their plights, and in fact has requested many of the same things from the legislature himself.  However, the Governor and his emissary, Commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen), want to take a harder stand on the prisoners, not letting them use the lives of hostages as bartering chips.  And inside, there’s a conflict of command as well.  Dunn tries to recruit the level-headed, popular “Colonel” (Robert Osterloh) to help rally the men, but the Colonel doesn’t approve of Dunn’s methods.  Dunn is caught between the unpredictable brutality of Carnie and the non-violent, sensible approach of the Colonel.  Meanwhile, other parts of the prison are encouraged by 11’s success and more trouble starts brewing.

Although not nearly as good as The Lineup, this is a fine noir from Don Siegel.  Prison movies on the whole don’t usually do a lot for me, but the production value here is very high.  Hordes of actual inmates were used as extras, and the net effect is that it feels a lot more genuine than the usual studio productions.  Some of the camerawork is really striking and impressive, highlighting the long corridors of cells and confined spaces, or the wide open chaos of the prison yard, or the expected use of bars and shadows and barriers.  Nothing here feels cheap or rushed.

The actors are solid though not especially impressive.  Among the familiar noir faces — Brand, Meyer, Faylen, Osterloh, Whit Bissell — Meyer probably fares best, with a more nuanced and sympathetic performance than I usually see from him.  The others all fill their roles well enough, but none really stand out as exceptionally memorable.

In a way, this is “just” a jail riot film, not making its progressive points about prison reform very eloquently.  But the execution is pulled off with style and realism, and there are moments of genuine tension.  Rating: Very Good (80)


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