Plot: As conditions deteriorate inside correctional facilities, the number of riots and other violent incidents has skyrocketed, with inmates on edge and worn down by poor living conditions. At Folsom State Prison, this trend is more than evident, especially in the overcrowded, always tense Cell Block 11. The block has reached a breaking point, as the inmates are packed in and in such tight, overcrowded spaces, these men begin to crack under the pressure. The tension boils over when James (Neville Brand) leads a group of prisoners in a riot, overtaking the guards and putting Cell Block 11 into the hands of the inmates. He uses this leverage to demand educational options, more rules for guards, and basic living improvements, which are heard by the warden, who wants to avoid potential widespread violence. But will this act of aggression lead to better lives for the prisoners or an even harsher environment?
Entertainment Value: I’ve seen a plethora of movies that take within prisons, but few can even come close to the kind of authentic atmosphere of Riot in Cell Block 11. This one has a realistic texture that it almost feels like a documentary at times, which is no small feat, to say the least. The movie has a low rent, b movie presence but that works in favor of the picture’s mood and tone, as keeps the narrative lean and the rough edges just bolster the believable environments. Even other movies that have shot in actual prisons struggle to capture this kind of raw tension, so Riot in Cell Block 11 more than delivers on that front. The riot scenes reflect that brutal atmosphere, with a feel that things go off the rails at any moment and that kind of edge of your seat mood is rare, so it really adds a lot to the atmosphere of those set pieces. The narrative is good, with a focus on social issues and a lean approach, but the real draw of Riot in Cell Block is the realistic tension and atmosphere of the prison environment. Fans of social dramas, classic thrillers, and prison cinema won’t want to miss this one.
The performances here fall in line with the general vibe of the movie, which means believable, rough edged efforts from the cast. Neville Brand has the lead and he is able to convey the desperation of the role well, as a man who has been backed into a corner and forced to fight for his basic rights. He could have easily taken the part in an overly melodramatic or soapbox direction, but instead he keeps it loaded with grit and grounded, which is an ideal fit here. Emile Meyer also has a prominent role and he spends a lot of time in conversation with Brand, so the two had a balance to maintain, given their opposing positions. Meyer has the added challenge of clearly wanting a peaceful resolution, while knowing inside that he is more or less powerless, thanks to the stances of those above him. The cast here also includes Leo Gordon, Frank Faylen, and Alvy Moore, while Don Siegel serves in the director’s chair. This movie also marked the first time Sam Peckinpah worked on a feature film, though his role was just as a production assistant.