Riot in Cell Block 11
Early in his career, Don Siegel made his mark with this sensational and high-octane but economically constructed drama set in a maximum-security penitentiary. Riot in Cell Block 11, the brainchild of producer extraordinaire Walter Wanger, is a ripped-from-the-headlines social-problem picture about inmates’ rights that was inspired by a recent spate of uprisings in American prisons. In Siegel’s hands, the film, shot on location at Folsom State Prison, with real inmates and guards as extras, is at once brash and humane, showcasing the hard-boiled visual flair and bold storytelling for which the director would become known.
Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11 receives a surprising (for me at least) dual-format release from The Criterion Collection, who present the film in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition digital transfer is delivered on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. A standard definition version is presented on the included dual-layer DVD. The latter version has not been window boxed.
Worth noting is that the film was actually released theatrically in differing aspect ratios, varying between 1.37:1 and the widescreen ratio of 1.85:1, and which version was screened was more than likely dependent on whether the theater showing the film could handle the widescreen ratio. Criterion notes in their booklet that their research did unveil this but they have decided to release the film in the 1.37:1 ratio. I don’t consider this a bad decision but it’s a little disappointing, especially since Criterion has released editions presenting films in alternate ratios (On the Waterfront) and other labels are following suit (Arrow’s Blu-ray of Siegel’s The Killers also delivers alternate ratios.) Since the transfer comes from a 4k scan it wouldn’t have been too hard for Criterion to make their own widescreen version for Blu-ray without degrading quality.
Yet having said that it’s in no way a sin that Criterion is presenting it in the standard ratio and it’s easy to see it was protected for both ratios. Nothing of value is added to the top or bottom of the frame, and there is a lot of head room in many shots, but the framing is fine and nothing looks at all out of whack. The film may have benefitted from the tighter framing, creating a more claustrophobic feeling that may have fit the film’s setting, but there is certainly nothing egregious in its presentation.
As to the transfer itself it’s certainly one of the bigger surprises I’ve had. Yes, Criterion’s high-def presentations have been on a winning streak the past few months (save for a couple like their George Washington upgrade) but I was certainly not expecting what we get here. The film, despite being a hit during its time, has been sort of buried on home video thanks to the Republic Pictures library moving around over the years (Paramount eventually acquired it,) and even though there was the promise of a 4k restoration I figured there is no way the film would get any real love.
But again I’m proven wrong. The high-def presentation we get looks completely stunning, delivering a consistently sharp and highly detailed image. Long shots in the prison yard manage to render an excellent amount of details in the background, bringing an incredible sense of texture and depth with it. Contrast levels are also rendered beautifully, with subtle tonal shifts, great shadow delineation, and wonderful black levels. Crushing isn’t an issue and object detail is never lost. Film grain is delivered naturally and never comes off like noise. In all it’s very filmic.
The DVD’s presentation isn’t nearly as good but for a standard definition presentation it’s fairly solid. Tonal shifts don’t come off nearly as impressive, and the transfer has a few issues with the film’s grain structure but it’s still sharp and manages a nice level of detail.
Print quality is excellent, and a lot of restoration work has been done. Stock footage is used in a number of places throughout the film, and it looks a little rough, but the main feature itself looks really good, with only a few minor blemishes like bits of debris and minor scratches remaining. Overall it’s a wonderful looking image, and a wonderful surprise.
The film has a simple mono track, presented in linear PCM on the Blu-ray and Dolby Digital 1.0 on the DVD. Both are adequate but rarely surpass that. In general it’s a flat track and when the volume levels increase (during cues in the music or the louder riot sequences) it can come off a bit edgy with some noticeable distortion. The track is clean, though, without a noticeable instance of damage.
The film gets a few decent supplements. Surprisingly Criterion has provided an audio commentary featuring film scholar Matthew Bernstein. It’s a fairly standard scholarly track but lean and to the point with little filler, more than likely thanks to the films’ fairly short run time. He offers admiration and insight for Siegel’s style, editing, and economy of storytelling, while also offering lengthy backstory about the film’s production, from Walter Wanger’s jail sentence (from shooting his wife’s lover in a very unpleasant place) that led him to want to make a film about the horrendous conditions in prisons (the film is ultimately a “message film”), to the film’s fairly successful theatrical run, with plenty in between (like how Sam Peckinpah was the one that convinced Folsom prison’s warden to let the film be shot there.) There’s a few other surprises, like how not only were Glenn Ford and Van Heflen considered to star, but Nicolas Ray was also considered as a possible director. Bernstein also goes into great detail about the prison riot at Michigan State Prison, which was a heavy influence on this film. Again it’s a very lean track, and Bernstein stays on topic and keeps it entertaining.
Next Criterion includes a couple of audio recordings of Siegel’s son, Kristofer Tabori reading excerpts covering the film from a couple of books. The first is an excerpt from the autobiography A Siegel Film, where Siegel recalls making Riot on Cell Block 11. From this we get Siegel’s firsthand account about the production, from being first approached by Wanger, to casting, to actually getting permission to film at Folsom Prison, and the film’s release. The second excerpt comes from the book Don Siegel: Director by Stuart Kaminsky. Here we get some more behind-the-scenes information, including the attempt to keep the filming of the riot secret from the prisoners. As a bonus we also get an interview with actor Neville Brand, who talks about the role and working with Siegel. I probably would have preferred these both to have been included in the booklet, but Tabori adds some decent voice acting (at least when speaking for his father) and emphasis. They each run 25-minutes and 13-minutes respectively.
Criterion finally includes another audio feature, excerpts from a 1953 radio series, The Challenge of Our Prisons. This radio program was an investigation into the riots that were moving from prison to prison throughout the country and the reasons for them. The excerpts focus specifically on the riot that occurred at Michigan State Prison in Jackson, with firsthand accounts from many of those involved, including former prisoner Earl Ward (who is described early on as a psychotic, so we should take his comments with a grain of salt—cue ominous music.) You also get interviews with the guards that were held hostage. Running 59-minutes it contextualizes the events in the film while also being a fairly entertaining feature on its own.
The included booklet features an excellent essay on the film by Chris Fujiwara followed by an article written by Walter Wanger about the prison system, based on his experience. It then closes with a short but great recollection by Sam Peckinpah about working with Siegel.
The supplements may feel slim but they’re fairly satisfying, offering a solid look at the making of the film, excellent contextualization, and some decent analysis.
Criterion presents a fairly comprehensive and satisfying package for Riot in Cell Block 11, which delivers a nice collection of supplementary material and a strong transfer. It comes with a very high recommendation.