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.

C. Fujiwara:

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.

Doctor Kevin McCarthy returns from vacation, finds that his ex-girlfriend Becky is back in town and single again. This allows both of them to be reasonably smart characters and still not notice that their small town is being overrun by pod people, because they’re focused on each other. Eventually though, even Becky becomes a pod person (not entirely convincingly, after falling asleep for a few minutes in a mine) and Kevin ends up raving to passing motorists on a highway, nobody paying him any attention, finally screaming “they’re here already – you’re next” into camera.

At first McCarthy (oscar-nominated five years before for Death of a Salesman, would go on to appear in every Joe Dante movie) is so ignorant of the pod invasion, he seems to be helping it out. When little Jimmy is brought in shouting that his mom isn’t his mom, Kevin drugs him and sends him home, surely dooming Jimmy to pod replacement. He investigates but dismisses Becky’s cousin Virginia Christine (of both the Siegel and Siodmak versions of The Killers) who says her uncle Ira isn’t Ira, but catches on to the pattern, and finally his friends Jack (King Donovan of The Defiant Ones) and Teddy (Carolyn Jones, Morticia in The Addams Family) find Jack’s pod replacement just out on the pool table being formed, and they figure out the whole thing.

L-R: Becky, Jack, Teddy, Kevin:

Local psychiatrist Larry Gates (a cop in Underworld USA) works against them, was probably a pod person early on (or just a bad psychiatrist). Becky (Dana Wynter of Sink the Bismarck, The List of Adrian Messenger) follows along for the adventure after her dad becomes a pod and she finds her own pod waiting for her to fall asleep (wonder if this influenced Nightmare On Elm Street). Speaking of influences, it’s got the Shaun of the Dead scene where they try to act like pod people in order not to be noticed. Sam Peckinpah, still working his way towards directing, plays a gas man. It’s weird that between this and The Visitor I just watched two of the few movies with him as an actor.


Apparently scripted as a horror-comedy but the studio didn’t understand such a thing and ordered the jokes cut. Speaking of studio interference, a suspicious framing story has McCarthy telling his story to some doctors at the beginning, making the bulk of the movie a flashback, then some evidence leads them to believe him and take action at the end, so theoretically the world can be saved, though it’s clear the movie is supposed to end with him screaming impotently on the highway. Joe Dante obviously didn’t mind the bookend scenes, cast doctor Richard Deacon in Piranha. The other doctor, Whit Bissell, appeared in I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein.