Riot in Cell Block 11: States of Exception

On Film / Essays — Apr 21, 2014

As a liberal film of its time, Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) addressed itself to the public, which it held ultimately responsible for the conditions that made prison riots a hot issue in the United States in the 1950s. The narrative, which producer Walter Wanger and screenwriter Richard Collins modeled after the events of a real-life riot that took place in Jackson, Michigan, in 1952, presents the stakes clearly: since society prefers to ignore the problems faced by prisoners, the prisoners themselves must force society to look at those problems.

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.

Although Don Siegel, who was hired to direct, no doubt shared, to some extent, the improving aspirations of his producer, his handling of Riot in Cell Block 11 proves that he had other things on his mind as well. With him at the reins, Riot becomes not just a social-problem film but a ferocious depiction of human beings pushed past their limits. Siegel had previously directed seven features, but although The Big Steal (1949), The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), and China Venture (1953) are done with some vigor, and Count the Hours (1953) is stunningly photographed (by John Alton) and comes out fiercely against small-town prejudice, it’s hard not to agree with Peter Bogdanovich’s assessment of Riot as Siegel’s “first important film” (an assessment with which Siegel himself concurred). It is the first film to reveal the deep sense of violent, unresolvable contradiction that would animate the director’s greatest work.

Siegel’s cinema is marked by the desire to go for broke, to go for nothing, to throw everything away. His commitment to filming sheer energy is announced early in Riot with the breakout of the most dangerous prisoners from their cells, followed by their release of the others, who, once set free, instinctively trash their rooms, hurling bedding and furniture down onto the lower level of the block. A moment of anarchy recalling Jean Vigo’s Zéro de ­conduite, the scene resonates with incipient contemporary revolts: the civil rights movement, rock and roll. Something of liberation is transmitted, too, by the casting of the film: so many actors doomed to remain underutilized in small, stereotypical parts are here given a chance to show what they can do (Neville Brand, Robert Osterloh, and Emile Meyer, in particular). Seemingly possessed by the need to at last express their personalities, the actors deliver performances of unregenerate force.

Throughout his career, Siegel was drawn to extreme situations, states of exception that reveal the truth about the supposedly normal conditions they interrupt. The criminal’s theft of the policeman’s gun in Madigan (1968); the escape of the suspect in Coogan’s Bluff (1968); the killer’s reign of terror in Dirty Harry (1971); the bank robbers’ possession of the unpossessable Mafia money in Charley Varrick (1973) all constitute such states of exception. And Riot is an ideal example. The riot, and in particular the taking of hostages, creates a limit situation, characterized by the suspension of rules. Who is in charge becomes a question: is it the warden, the governor’s representative, the police, the legislature, “the people”? All these exercise a certain power, or are imputed to have power, at some point during the standoff.

The uncertainty about the legitimacy of power heightens the sense of chaos and danger that emanates from Riot, which becomes not so much an action film as a study of nervous excitement and the excessive violence of repression (a trigger-happy state policeman walking toward the rioters, his eyes shifting tensely side to side). Siegel, who earned a deserved reputation as a director exceptional at staging violence, here shows an interest in violence less as physical action than as psychological contagion. When, for instance, Crazy Mike Carnie (the riveting, granite-voiced Leo Gordon) beats up a fellow prisoner (William Phipps), another of the riot leaders (Alvy Moore) stands watching nearby, grinning with pleasure. These men experience violence as freedom, their only possible outlet from a hopeless situation, and Siegel focuses on their anger, their need to deal physical pain, to hold, for a moment, someone’s life in their hands. (If Escape from Alcatraz—in which, twenty-­five years after Riot, Siegel returns to a prison setting—is less powerful, though more elegant, than its predecessor, it’s partly because the hero of the later film appears to pose no threat: an arch-rationalist, he cares only about self-preservation.)

From the outset, Riot in Cell Block 11 depicts a situation that is understood to be intolerable. In this context, the violence of the prisoners does not have to be explained—and the fact that it goes without explanation is one of the strengths of the film. The situation is described in these terms by the governor (Thomas Browne Henry), repeating the complaints of the liberal warden (Meyer): “Overcrowding, old plant, insufficient personnel.” The prisoners complete the picture in calling for an end to enforced idleness and brutal guards. (Wanger and Collins adapted their characters’ demands from those made by the rioting prisoners in Jackson.)

Whether any of the prisoners are guilty is never discussed; that issue is taken off the table from the beginning. The only important thing is that they are prisoners. Like Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Riot in Cell Block 11 seeks to get down to the core of humanity, to show that it has to be fought for—against the flattening imposed not only by state power but also by mass media (compare the ironic use of the car ad heard on the radio by the prisoners in Riot with the music program playing on the loudspeaker in Invasion that deceives the hero into thinking there are real humans nearby).

The motives for the prisoners’ uprising in Riot are so relevant to the later science-fiction film that the two Wanger-Siegel collaborations might be seen as a diptych on a single theme. Speaking for the prisoners, the Colonel (Osterloh) tells one of the captured guards, while tending the bruises on the man’s face, that “what we got against you”—in spite of their mutual understanding, the fact that they all have loved ones on the outside, etc.—is that the guards are the tools of the system that dehumanizes the prisoners. The morality of the film is entirely based on this. The prisoners are superior to the guards because they are the victims, and the guards the instruments, of an overwhelming attempt (bolstered by technology and state violence) to deny their humanity. Between those who align themselves, to earn a salary, with the institutional apparatus and those who are its victims, there lies an unbridgeable gulf; and those who identify with the institution are at risk of turning into “pods” (to put it in Invasion of the Body Snatchers terms), because they refer outside themselves for moral and political decisions.

The prisoners represent a range of positions, from the psychopathic Carnie, champing at the bit to execute the captured guards, to the moderate Colonel (“I’m for the demands, but I’m against the riot”). The characterization of Dunn (Brand), the riot leader, is one of the most remarkable aspects of the film. “Dangerous and unbalanced,” the warden calls him. “He should be in a hospital under psychiatric care.” Yet it’s Dunn who usurps the role of the film’s hero. He acts as a go-between between the prisoners and the authorities, showing that he can speak the latter’s language (the prisoners’ demands, which Dunn takes the lead in drafting, are almost all things that the warden has publicly called for). He distinguishes himself from the more extreme prisoners (“The nuts ought to be separated from the rest of us,” he tells the warden), though the undetermined status of his own mental condition means that we see him less as an identification figure than as a threat. He may not be as irretrievably gone as Crazy Mike, but how far Dunn is from stability is signaled early in the film by his sudden, possibly racist beating of a black prisoner who wants to withdraw from the riot, and later by his retaliation against the Colonel. The whole episode in which Dunn, sidelined by an ambush by a breakaway group of prisoners, remains in his cell, leaving Carnie in charge, is mysterious: he seems to retire out of mental exhaustion as much as from any physical injury.

The system is as unstable and unpredictable as the prisoners. The legislature nullifies the signatures of the governor and the warden on the prisoners’ list of demands. The hard-line Commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen), dispatched by the governor to suppress the riot, reveals an inflexibility and a love of violence that show him to be a counterpart to Carnie. Dunn is willing to sacrifice the four guards one by one, but Haskell orders mass murder in calling for the exterior wall of Block 11 to be dynamited. The portrayals of both sides of the conflict reflect the attitude of Siegel, who indicates in his autobiography that, in working with Richard Collins on revising the script of Riot, he encouraged the writer to, as Collins put it, “take a cockeyed approach to what I thought was a semidocumentary.” This suggests that one of Siegel’s aims was to increase the complexity of the characters and their relationships in order to heighten the contradictions of the story.

What can be said of the visual style of Riot other than that it is both perverse in its inexpressiveness and sublime in its functionality? The film is tight and economical in its emphasis on physical evidence, on what reveals itself fully just in being seen: the arrival of the state police, their clash with the prisoners, the uniformed guards carrying the morning news­papers across the yard. Admirably served by ace cinematographer Russell Harlan’s quick and dirty lighting schemes and robust compositions, the style of the film underlines the contradiction between two levels of Riot: an account of human actions that are presented strictly in terms of exterior reality and a study of the rage, pride, and pain of maladapted individuals. Such duality comes through in most of Siegel’s major films: Baby Face Nelson (1957), where it is in the setup of the film as a chronicle of a person who is deficient as a human being, a psychopath; Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where it is embedded in the premise of the story; The Killers (1964), with its cold, cool, concealed protagonists; the films with Clint Eastwood, in which the remoteness of the characters Eastwood plays is shown to be both a strength and a weakness; Hell Is for Heroes (1962), in which the hero’s inability to form attachments with other men enables him to excel as a combat soldier. In Riot, the underlying contradiction can also be put this way: there is a need for violence (as Robert Keith’s Julian observes in 1958’s The Lineup), which the individual must express in order to be free but which must also be repressed in order for society to protect itself.

In some of his films, Siegel finds a way to lead the drama to a point of impasse with a flourish that might seem overstated if it were not so geometrically exact (the stadium in Dirty Harry, the unfinished superhighway in The Lineup, the burned-out pillbox in Hell Is for Heroes). There is no equivalent moment of visual heightening in Riot, although the opening and closing images of the cell block interior in depth attest to Siegel’s attraction to the emblematic clarity of the long shot. Instead, Siegel trusts the narrative design to carry his pessimism about human action and human equilibrium, about society and the potential for the individual to make a difference.

Siegel’s contribution to the writing of the final exchange between the warden and Dunn (as documented by film historian Matthew Bernstein) is crucial in this regard: whereas in an earlier version of the script the warden despaired of prison reform while Dunn remained hopeful, in the scene that was shot, the men’s attitudes are switched, so that it is, more than anything, the chilling prospect of longer incarceration that we are left with. Here is the Siegelian impasse of Riot in Cell Block 11: the dead end represented by the brute fact of the failure of the riot. The ending of the film reminds us, in the most direct way possible, that the state of exception we’ve witnessed in Riot is merely the negative of the terrible norm—but it’s a reminder that justifies the entire project and all the prisoners’ expenditure of energy. When the reign of the intolerable promises to stretch on forever, the only thing worth doing is to go for broke.