Second weekend afternoon in a row I’ve watched a mid-1950’s true-crime drama. It’s not intentional, they’re just the shortest movies I’ve got. Newsreel-style intro tells us about a wave of riots protesting poor conditions in American prisons, featuring real footage, then cut to cell block 11 (the punishment block) in a California (?) prison where the inmates have decided to join the trend, holding their captors captive and calling for the warden and the press.
A tight, tense little movie which mostly comes down on the side of the prisoners – most of them, anyway. Master negotiator Dunn ends up fighting for control with Crazy Mike. Dunn gets an audience with the press, then Mike throws a knife into a guy outside. The next morning some lower-security cell blocks escape and join in the action. The cops contemplate blasting a hole in the cell block wall, which would also kill the guards held within, but ultimately the governor caves.
Warden (left) with Commissioner:
Politics: the first black guy who opens his mouth gets knocked out by Dunn. One of the ringleaders’ demands is that the young naïve guys be kept away from “certain prisoners” – I assumed they meant the crazy violent ones like Mike, but the commentary says it’s code for The Gays. And the warden basically wants the same things as the prisoners, has wanted it for years, but his hands are tied by tight-fisted state politicians.
Victory! I think that’s Crazy Mike at left, Dunn in center:
Noble Leader Dunn was Neville Brand (Eaten Alive and The Ninth Configuration), Evil Leader Mike was Leo Gordon, who had served time at San Quentin, and played Dillinger in Baby Face Nelson. The Warden: Emile Meyer (the priest in Paths of Glory, corrupt cop in Sweet Smell of Success), Commissioner Haskell (the governor’s stooge who gets knifed): Frank Faylen of 99 River Street and The Lost Weekend, and the injured, sympathetic hostage guard: cartoon voice actor Paul Frees. Written by friendly-witness commie Richard Collins, an early work by Siegel a couple years before his Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The film had its origin in Wanger’s own experience as an inmate. After shooting agent Jennings Lang in a jealous rage over Wanger’s wife, Joan Bennett, Wanger was convicted for assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to four months, which he served at a minimum-security prison north of Los Angeles. He emerged so appalled by the experience that he set out to use his access to mass media to arouse the public in favor of prison reform … With [Siegel] at the reins, Riot becomes not just a social-problem film but a ferocious depiction of human beings pushed past their limits.