Thursday, March 30, 2006

A Siegel Film: Riot on Cell Block 11 (1954)

The sixth in a series of appreciations of the work of director Don Siegel, courtesy of the current retrospective of his work at New York's Film Forum.

Riot on Cell Block 11 was a rarity at the Don Siegel retrospective: a disappointment.

11 was amongst the most highly praised of all Siegel's films in the various pieces that ran in the New York papers to kick off the Forum retro. “A classic of the genre, almost documentary in approach, and boiling up an explosive violence kept under perfect control.” said Time Out (London), as quoted on Forum's website. While waiting in line in the lobby one day last week, I read a Siegel apppreciation — and forgive me for forgetting who exactly wrote it — saying that despite his low profile amongst casual movie fans, Siegel directed the definitive film in three genres: the sci-fi picture (Body Snatchers), the cop-on-the-edge picture (Dirty Harry), and, with Riot on Cell Block 11, the prison movie. So I went into this thing expecting it to be the toppermost of the poppermost.

Maybe it was the resulting high expectations, but Riot on Cell Block 11 did not deliver. Given the tawdry subject matter and Siegel's knack for tremendously manly action, I anticipated a high octane thriller of chills, spills, and kills. But Siegel (or, according to IMDb, producer Walter Wanger) is more concerned with exposing the corruption and hypocrisy within the American penitentiary system in the early 1950s. It's a serious and important issue for sure, but one that lends itself more to manly speechifying than manly action.

Filming in the real Folsom Prison gives the picture a nice visual grittiness, but otherwise Siegel's technique is, for one film at least, undistinguished. The story involves a prison riot which begins far too easily, when an inmate suckers a guard into opening his cell in the dead of night by saying he needs something delivered to another inmate — and he says ok! Is it that simple to get the jump on guards in jail? Forget taking him hostage; why not just try asking the guard to let you out?

Like Flaming Star, Riot is about characters forced to make unsavory decisions that frequently blur the line between right and wrong. As we learn, the criminals may have more integrity than their jailers and the politicians who appoint them. Unfortunately, the characters making these decisions and learning these lessons are universally thin and uninteresting, portrayed by a mediocre ensemble, although one guy looks exactly like Patrick Swayze, which is kind of cool. I kept waiting for him to turn to someone in the middle of the riot and shout "I've had the time of my life! And I've never felt this way before!"

So Riot was a bust. But the beauty of these retrospectives is finding greatness where you least expect it, discovering lost classics instead of just confirming the canon. Riot's double feature partner was a little picture I'd never heard of called Private Hell 36, and lo and behold, it was clearly the superior picture on this day: taut, gritty, with some of the best dialogue of the retro courtesy of co-star and co-writer Ida Lupino. I suspect you'll be reading about it in a future post.

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