Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)
Seventeen years prior to unleashing the violence of Dirty Harry upon 1970’s filmgoers, director Don Siegel gave the 1950’s crowd this explosive prison drama that cast a long list of accomplished character actors in the leading roles starting with none other than screen tough guy and WW2 decorated hero, Neville Brand taking center stage.
Utilizing a semi-documentary style consisting of a stern narrator and stock footage including political figures of the prison system attending meetings just up the road from me in Toronto, Canada, the question is raised, “Where will the next prison riot be?” Cut to the usually gentle character actor Dabbs Greer slugging a guard, grabbing some keys and unlocking the cells of Brand and the always dangerous Leo Gordon. Our question has been answered and the riot is set to occur in a prison overseen by Emile Meyer who plays against type as a fair warden who shows much wisdom and compassion in his decision making.
Filmed on location in Folsom just before Johnny Cash would make the prison world famous in song, Brand and Gordon are quick to release all the inmates in Cell Block 11 while at the same time roughing up the guards on duty and placing them in a cell. Another well known face, Whit Bissell, is rightfully scared for his life. He’s a quick tempered guard who has plenty of enemies among the inmates. Brand plays the ringleader and representative who will step forward to bargain with Meyer on the overall treatment of the prisoners and the things that are denied to them while incarcerated.
It’s at this point that prison official Frank Faylen turns up as does the press with William Schallert front and center as a newspaper man covering the story that is earning Brand headlines across the nation. Faylen has little use for negotiating a “fair deal” with Brand and is set to unleash the national guard on the convicts. The hot headed Gordon does little to strengthen the inmate’s arguments when he throws a dagger at Faylen.
“One guard for each inmate.”
This from Brand to Meyer. If any inmate is killed by a guard’s hand, one of the hostages will also be killed as retribution and Bissell’s name is first on that list.
While Meyer wants the stand off to come to a peaceful ending and is willing to capitulate to Brand’s demands, Faylen is quick to take advantage of any sign of weakness that may surface. It’s at this point as the film nears it’s harrowing climax that Siegel gives us one hell of a hair raising scare. When the convicts learn that the guards have set dynamite along a wall in order to send the troops flooding into the cell block, Brand and company handcuff their hostages along the inside of that same wall that’s been set to blow. The tension rises as the inmates all back away from the wall awaiting the explosion to level the brick and kill the hostages.
Produced by Walter Wanger, the casting of Leo Gordon among the inmates was somewhat controversial during the production. Leo had served a five year stretch for armed robbery in San Quentin and the real warden of Folsom Prison didn’t want him on the location shoot. Looking at Leo in the film, it’s no wonder. He’s scary as hell, meaning he’s terrific and unforgettable in the role of the heavy, Crazy Mike Carnie. The type of role he’d play for the majority of his career moving forward. One has to love a quote from director Siegel, “Leo Gordon was the scariest man I have ever met”
The casting of the gravel voiced Neville Brand proved a great fit. Brand like Gordon would go on to play many a bad guy over the course of his career that was beginning to pick up steam following his role in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. Like Gordon, Brand was the real deal and a highly decorated veteran. Some sources place him as the fourth most decorated soldier of WW2. As an actor who was generally type cast as the heavy, this role proved a good fit for Brand. Though an inmate and playing it tough, he’s put his fellow convicts needs ahead of his. He’d follow up this role with another change of pace character portrait in Return From the Sea as a lonely navy man.
Producer Wanger would reteam with Don Siegel for the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956 and the following year Siegel would once again direct Leo Gordon as none other than John Dillinger in Baby Face Nelson with Mickey Rooney taking the tile role.
One of the major strengths of Riot in Cell Block 11 is the lack of star power. By not employing a headline actor in the Burt Lancaster mold of Brute Force, the film works well as an ensemble piece flooded with well known character actors who generally make any film they appear in that much better. Brand and Gordon consistently made any leading man that much more of a hero for facing them down while Emile Meyer expertly played the heavy under a shaggy dog beard in Shane. Schallert surely appeared in what seems like 1000 roles between TV and film and Dabbs Greer did the same, notably in his long run on Little House in the 1970’s. Bissell played roles in anything from westerns to the Creature From the Black Lagoon and is easily identifiable. Even Alvy Moore is in here as an inmate. You may recall him from his role on Green Acres.
Out on DVD or blu ray from Criterion, this one’s a great example of a “B” film that made a lasting impression on cinema by a director who was clearly on the rise. No I don’t have the original one sheet here in the collection but if you’re going to have just one classic lobby card from the film, you definitely want the one with Leo and Neville featured prominently. Highly recommended if you haven’t already seen this prison drama.