Riot in Cell Block 11
Cast & Crew
In a large state prison, incorrigible inmates are incarcerated in cell block eleven, known as "the punishment block." After "lights out" one night, Schulyer, one of the convicts, tricks Monroe, a rookie guard, into opening his cell door, then drags him into his cell and savagely beats him. Schuyler then frees Dunn, a fellow convict, who overpowers veteran guard Snader. When Acton, another guard, tries to flee, the inmates wrestle him to the floor and throw open the rest of the cell doors, releasing the convicts. As the inmates riot, hurling the contents of their cells into the corridor, Dunn demands to talk to Warden Reynolds. While sirens signal the uprising and search lights sweep across the yard, Capt. Barrett, the head of the prison guards, relays Dunn's message to the warden. After calling for order in the cell block, Dunn assumes command along with Crazy Mike Carnie, an inmate who has been transferred from a state mental institution. In the prison yard, Dunn, using Snader as a shield, meets with the warden and demands to be allowed to air his grievances to reporters, then warns that the guards will be killed if his request is denied. While the inmates fabricate primitive lethal weapons, the warden, who has long argued for reforms to eliminate overcrowding and appalling living conditions in the prison, phones the governor, who sends a politician named Haskell to negotiate with the prisoners. In block eleven, Dunn appeals to The Colonel, a former war hero who was imprisoned for manslaughter, to help create a reasoned list of demands. Haskell arrives and blames Dunn for the unrest just as the reporters are assembling in the warden's office. When the warden escorts the reporters to meet Dunn, Dunn brandishes the leg irons and chains that have been used to restrain the prisoners and issues a diatribe about the inhumane conditions in the prison. After Dunn demands that the conditions be rectified, Haskell calls the demands unreasonable and assumes an intractable stance against the prisoners, threatening to have them all killed unless they surrender. In response, Carnie hurls a knife into Haskell's chest, wounding him. In the morning, the wounded Haskell joins the warden in the watch tower and observes the guards usher the inmates of cell block four into the mess hall. Emboldened by the riot in block eleven, the inmates of block four rise up and bolt into the prison yard. When cell block five also erupts in violence, the warden sends for the state police who arrive just as the inmates begin to ransack and set fire to the prison buildings. Forming a line, the police move into the yard, firing their rifles and driving the prisoners back into their cell blocks. Although a prison-wide riot has been crushed, eleven prisoners holding nine guards hostage in cell block eleven refuse to surrender. When Dunn learns that one of the prisoners was killed in the melee, he threatens to execute Snader in return. Alarmed, the warden agrees to let Dunn present his list of demands. Dunn then calls on the warden to bring an end to the brutal restraint of prisoners and institute reforms such as job training and the updating of prison facilities. When Dunn also demands that no reprisals be taken against the prisoners who took part in the riots, the outraged Haskell accuses the warden of writing the demands himself and vows to bring the ringleaders to trial. The warden overrules Haskell, however, and asks Dunn to give him six hours to convince the governor to agree to the demands. Back inside block eleven, Dunn is attacked by Mickey, a psychopathic, power-mad convict. Carnie comes to Dunn's aid, then phones Barrett to announce that he is taking over the leadership from Dunn. To put pressure on the warden, Carnie orders the guards to write goodbye letters to their wives, then reads them over the phone to the sobbing women. While Haskell makes plans to blow up block eleven, the warden pleads with the governor to accede to the prisoners' demands. When the sadistic Carnie decides to kill Snader, The Colonel rallies the prisoners to oppose him and Dunn is called in to mediate. After Dunn breaks up a fight among the inmates, word comes that plans are afoot to blow up block eleven. When they hear the sound of pick axes striking the side of the building, the inmates realize that they have been double-crossed and lash the guards to the wall. After The Colonel insists that they all surrender, Dunn slugs him and ties him to the wall alongside the guards. The phone rings at the other end of the block just as the prisoners back away, waiting for the explosion. The inmates run to answer it and learn that the governor has agreed to their demands. Dunn refuses to surrender until the story appears in the morning paper, and after the papers are delivered to the prison the next day, the inmates release the guards and give themselves up. Two weeks later, conditions at the prison have still not improved. The warden summons Dunn to his office and informs him that he is being charged with leading a riot and kidnapping the guards, charges that could add thirty years to his sentence. The warden then explains to the dumbfounded Dunn that the legislature, at Haskell's urging, cancelled the governor's agreement with the prisoners. The warden concludes by noting that some good has come from the evil, because The Colonel has been granted a parole, Carnie is being sent to a mental institution, and a panel is to be convened to investigate conditions at the prison. Dunn is then escorted back to his cell to face an additional thirty years of confinement.
Harold J. Kennedy
Thomas Browne Henry
Herschel Burke Gilbert
Bruce B. Pierce
Paul Schmutz Sr.
Allen K. Wood
Riot in Cell Block 11
Wanger was a prominent, long-time producer of such varied and excellent films as History is Made at Night (1937), Stagecoach (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Long Voyage Home (1940), Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947) and The Reckless Moment (1949). In the early 1950s, he produced movies for Allied Artists, the "prestige" unit of low-budget Monogram that would soon take over the Monogram name altogether. He was also married at the time to movie star Joan Bennett (the star of The Reckless Moment). When he discovered that Bennett was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang, Wanger confronted them in a parking lot and shot Lang in the groin, in one of the biggest Hollywood scandals up to that point. Wanger pled temporary insanity and was sentenced to four months in prison, ultimately serving 98 days.
Even though he served his time in a minimum-security institution, Wanger was so appalled by his experience--and by the idleness and humiliation he saw imposed on other criminals--that he decided he would make a picture that exposed prison conditions as a societal ill. The result was Riot in Cell Block 11, which drew enormous publicity when it was released and indeed got the country talking about prisons. The picture still packs a wallop not least because the topic of prison reform remains relevant today.
The key quality of this film is authenticity. It's present in everything from the setting to the visual style and even the cast, all in the service of themes that resonate with moral questions. Shot at a cost of $225,000 in an unused ward at California's Folsom State Prison, the movie starts with a narrated, documentary-style prologue that bleeds into scripted drama, a device that does well to set up the reality of the situation. Russell Harlan's crisp cinematography goes on to emphasize the geography of the prison grounds while characters run down corridors and interact with walls, doors and gates. As shot, these objects all give off a sense of visceral solidness, adding to the feel of realism. Further, the visual energy created by all the running and rioting gives the audience an impression of overall violence, even though the movie is actually surprisingly low on explicit carnage.
The story basically centers on the tension between prisoners who have revolted against their guards, and the warden and his army of men who face off against them. But the morality of the situation is not so simple. The prisoners want guarantees of reforms that the warden has previously asked of his superiors, to no avail. The demands seem reasonable. But are the prisoners' methods reasonable? Can they really be blamed? Richard Collins's screenplay also explores the shifting levels of power that various characters command throughout the story. There are equally reasonable and unreasonable people on both sides, from simpleton foot soldiers to more thoughtful leaders, and while this may sound overly schematic, it actually doesn't feel like the film is trying too hard to present both sides as good and bad. Instead, it all feels logical and credible.
The cast is a fascinating mix of actors, real prisoners, and in the case of Leo Gordon, both! Gordon had actually served time in Folsom for armed robbery. More recently, he had embarked on what would become a long screen career. But the Folsom Prison warden did not trust him and was so concerned by his presence that he forced Gordon to enter the prison each shooting day not with cast and crew but through a separate entrance where he would be subjected to an extra-careful search. He plays (superbly) the aptly-named "Crazy Mike Carnie." In the role of prisoner ringleader James Dunn is a perfectly cast Neville Brand, and playing the warden is the durable character actor Emile Meyer. Backing them up are an assortment of tough-guy actors of the era and even some real-life prisoners. Director Siegel later recalled, "I didn't know our hired prisoners from the real ones."
Even though the idea for the film sprang from Wanger's own incarceration, the events depicted are specifically based on a 1952 riot in Michigan's Jackson State Prison. Newsreel footage of that very riot begins the film.
By Jeremy Arnold
Riot in Cell Block 11
Leo Gordon (I) had once served time for armed robbery at Folsom Prison. The guards remembered him as a troublemaker, and always made him enter and exit the prison separate from the cast and crew, and always strip-searched him.
Producer Walter Wanger served a prison term for shooting a man he suspected of having an affair with his wife. The experiences he had in prison so unnerved him that upon his release he resolved to make a film about what prison was "really" like, not the typical Hollywood prison film made by people who had never been anywhere near a prison or who had never had any experience with the justice system. He shot the film at California's Folsom Prison and used both guards and inmates as extras and technical advisors. Wanger's cast and crew also differed from the Hollywood "norm"; among them were actor Neville Brand, a Marine veteran of WW II who had personally killed dozens of Japanese soldiers in battle and was the third most decorated American soldier of the war; actor Leo Gordon (I), another combat veteran who had once served a stretch in Folsom Prison for armed robbery; and then-production assistant Sam Peckinpah, whose father, Denver Peckinpah, was a widely known and respected law-and-order judge in northern California (and whose name alone was enough to get the warden to allow the film to be shot in Folsom).
This was such a hit that Walter Wanger teamed with Don Seigel two years later for the now classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
This was such a financial and critical success for Allied Artists (formerly Monogram) that they were able to book the film into theatres well into the late 1950s.
The film opens with an offscreen narrator relating a semi-documentary account of the riots that have been sweeping U.S. prisons. The film then cuts to a news conference in which Richard A. McGee, a spokesman for the American Prison Association, states that the riots are the result of primitive conditions that are widespread throughout the prison system, conditions that need to be corrected in order to bring an end to the violence. The following written acknowledgment is included in the onscreen credits: "We wish to thank Mr. Richard A. McGee and his staff of the California Department of Corrections, Warden Heinze, Associate Warden Ryan, Correctional officers and the inmates of Folsom Prison for their cooperation."
According to the reviews, the film was shot entirely at Folsom State Prison in Represa, CA. The production used an empty two-story cell block at the prison. In his autobiography, director Don Siegel stated that Leo Gordon, who played " Crazy Mike Carnie," was an ex-convict who had been imprisoned at San Quentin for five years for robbery. For this reason, Heinze, the Folsom warden, originally objected to Gordon appearing in the film, but Siegel was able to convince him that Gordon was no threat to the prison.
Riot in Cell Block 11 was the first feature film of director-screenwriter Sam Peckinpah (1925-1984), who worked as a production assistant on the picture. Peckinpah, whose full name was David Samuel Peckinpah, was listed as David Peckinpah in some contemporary sources. As noted in a July 1953 news item in Los Angeles Daily News, producer Walter Wanger served three months and nine days at the Los Angeles County Honor Farm for shooting well-known theatrical agent Jennings Lang, whom he suspected of romancing his wife, Joan Bennett. A March 1954 Los Angeles Times news item notes that writers Peggy and Walter McGraw sued Wanger for $3,015,000, claiming that Riot in Cell Block 11 was based on material they wrote. The outcome of that suit has not been determined.
Released in United States Winter February 1954
Released in United States 1983
Formerly distributed by Allied Artists.
Released in United States Winter February 1954
Released in United States 1983 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (A "B-Movie" Marathon) April 13 - May 1, 1983.)