Creature Double Feature 3: THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (UA 1957) & THE GIANT CLAW (Columbia 1957)

Welcome to another exciting edition of Creature Double Feature, a fond look back at the type of weird and wonderful monster movies that used to be broadcast Saturday afternoons on Boston’s WLVI-TV 56. Today we’ve got twin terrors from 1957, one beneath the sea, the other above the skies. Let’s dive right in with THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, a soggy saga starring former cowboy star Tim Holt and a monstrous giant sea slug!

An earthquake has released the beast in California’s Salton Sea, and when a Navy parachutist and a rescue crew goes missing, Commander “Twill” Twillinger (Holt) investigates. A mysterious, sticky white goo is found on board (no “money shot” cracks, please!), and a sample is taken to the lab of Dr. Rogers (Hans Conreid). Rogers analyzes the substance, a “simple marine secretion” (again, no wisecracks!), later discovered to be radioactive.

Rogers’ secretary Gail (Audrey Dalton) and Twill get off on the wrong foot, so you know their destined to fall in love. That’s just the way it goes in these films. Anyway, Twill and the local sheriff (Gordon Jones, THE ABBOTT & COSTELLO SHOW’s Mike the Cop) pay a visit to the coroner, who tells them the bodies have been “drained of blood and water”, then offers them a sandwich from his cold-storage unit (they politely decline!). Meanwhile, the beaches have been temporarily closed, but some foolish young lovers decide to take a swim, and of course become the monster’s next victims.

Twill decides to “investigate the bottom of the sea”, and some fine underwater photography finds the divers discovering some giant six-foot eggs! One large egg is hauled up by net, pissing Mama Monster off, and she goes on the offensive. Dr. Rogers does his analyzation thing, and proclaims the giant slug is a descendant of none other than the legendary Kraken! A local historian named Lewis Clark Dobbs, played by marvelous Milton Parsons , finds a map of underground waterways, and the Navy blows up the nest. But that egg in the lab hatches thanks to Gail’s daughter Sandy, and terrorizes the girls until Twill arrives, brandishing a fire extinguisher and a steam hose to subdue the menacing mollusk long enough for the forces of good to shoot it down in a hail of bullets.

Holt had been off the screen five years before this film, and he’s looking a little paunchy, but still makes a believable hero. The actor was typecast as a ‘B’ cowboy, rarely getting his chance to show his acting chops (except in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE). The rest of the cast is fine, and I enjoyed the bit by horror vet Parsons (is his character’s name an homage to TREASURE’S Fred C. Dobbs? Only screenwriter Pat Fielder knows for sure!). The monster itself is more cute and cuddly rather than creepy, but on the whole the movie’s an okay if by-the-book entry in the giant monster sweepstakes. Director Arnold Laven and producers Arthur Gardner and Jules Levy later had greater success as the team behind TV’s THE RIFLEMAN and THE BIG VALLEY.

Now it’s on to THE GIANT CLAW, a much-maligned film from the King of Schlock Sam Katzman ! This one features one of the most laughable-looking monsters in genre history, a puppet resembling a giant prehistoric turkey! Shades of BLOOD FREAK ! The film follows the formula closely, with sci-fi stalwarts Jeff Morrow (THIS ISLAND EARTH, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US), Mara Corday (TARANTULA, THE BLACK SCORPION), Morris Ankrum (INVADERS FROM MARS, EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS ), and Robert Shayne (THE NEANDERTHAL MAN , TV’s ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) all on board for a quick, enjoyable romp loaded with unintentional laughs.

Aeronautical engineer Mitch McAfee (Morrow) spots what he thinks is a UFO while flying the wild blue yonder in the Arctic. Mathematician Sally (Corday) scoffs, and the two are quickly at odds. You already know they hook up, right? While on reconnaissance, their plane crash lands, and they’re rescued by an actor with a terrible French-Canadian accent going by the original moniker of Pierre. McAfee and Sally recuperate at the bad-accented guy’s farm, when he hears trouble outside. Pierre is horrified by a sighting of what he thinks is La Carcagne, a mythical beast with “the face of a wolf and the body of a woman… with wings!”.

It’s really a giant turkey from outer space. The bird that is, not the movie! McAfee discovers the bird is flying in a concentric circular pattern, and Big Army Brass (sorry, wrong movie!) gives the order to shoot it down. But planes can’t stop it, “machine guns, cannons, rockets” don’t faze it. “It’s just a bird!”, screams Gen. Buskirk (Shayne), who keeps repeating “guns, cannons, rockets” like he’s shell-shocked! Scientists determine the bird is from “an anti-matter galaxy billions of light years from Earth. No other explanation is possible” because of course there’s not.

The “feathered nightmare on wings” is spotted around the globe, and Earth is in panic mode. A nest is discovered on Pierre’s farm, and McAfee and Sally shoot the egg, naturally pissing the bird off (just like our previous crustacean creature). Pierre becomes bird food, as do some dumb local teenage joyriders. There’s some scientific double-talk about “masic atoms” leading to the creation of a weapon powerful enough to breach the bird’s anti-matter shield. Meanwhile, our giant turkey monster is wreaking havoc in the Big Apple, attacking the UN building and the Empire State Building. That tremor you just felt was KING KONG rolling over in his grave! McAfee and the team commandeer an Air Force jet equipped with the new weapon, and pierce through the bird’s force field, enabling them to destroy the turkey with conventional rockets. Yay, team!

Ray Harryhausen was originally scheduled to handle the special effects, but when his price was deemed too high, the ever-frugal Katzman contracted the work to a Mexican outfit that created the silly looking bird puppet. Despite the fact that the monster is so ludicrous, I really enjoyed THE GIANT CLAW. It’s fast-moving and fun, with nary a wasted minute thanks to El Cheapo Katzman. The likable cast play their roles earnestly, and a good time is had by all. Except for the bird, of course!

Tune in next time for more madness on CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE!

And check out previous entries in the series:

  1. THE BLACK SCORPION & THE KILLER SHREWS 
  2. IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA & 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH

 

Heel with a Heart: Dan Duryea in THE UNDERWORLD STORY (United Artists 1950)

Hollywood’s favorite heel Dan Duryea got a rare starring role in THE UNDERWORLD STORY, a 1950 crime drama in which he plays… you guessed it, a heel! But this heel redeems himself at the film’s conclusion, and Duryea even wins the girl. Since that girl is played by my not-so-secret crush Gale Storm , you just know I had to watch this one!

The part of muckraking tabloid journalist Mike Reese is tailor-made for Duryea’s sleazy charms. He’s a big-city reporter who breaks a story about gangster Turk Meyers spilling to the D.A., resulting in the thug ending up murdered on the courthouse steps in a hail of bullets. DA Ralph Monroe (Michael O’Shea )  puts the pressure on Mike’s editor, and Reese becomes persona non grata in the newspaper game. Seeing an ad for a partner at a small town newspaper, Mike gets a $5,000 “loan” from crime boss Carl Durham (a scary Howard DaSilva ), and hightails it to the sedate New England burg of Lakeville.

The Lakeville Sentinel is run by ‘Our Little Margie’ Miss Storm, as Cathy Harris, who inherited the failing rag from her late father. Cathy’s reluctant to take on the aggressive hustler as her partner, but is persuaded by old-time printer George “Parky” Parker (veteran Harry Shannon). Things get shaken up in Lakeville when the wife of Clark Stanton (Gar Moore), son of publishing mogul Ed Stanton (Herbert Marshall  ) is found murdered, and Mike exploits the tragedy for all its worth, leading to the frame-up of the Stanton’s black maid Molly (Mary Anderson).

THE UNDERWORLD STORY was pretty bold for it’s time in its subject matter, dealing not only with “yellow journalism”, but also issues of race and class. I had to rewind twice when rich Clark Stanton, who killed his wife and pins the blame on Molly, tells his dad, ” Who’ll believe the word of a nigger against ours?”. You just don’t hear something like that in a film made in 1950! The only complaint I have is that Anderson, who gives a sympathetic performance as Molly, is a white woman. Couldn’t the producers have hired a black actress to essay the role? It’s also implied that old man Stanton was a bit more than just fond of his daughter-in-law. The Stantons conspire to put the Sentinel out of business when Mike crusades for Molly’s innocence, using their blue-blood connections to get local businesses to stop advertising in the paper.

There are allusions to the HUAC hearings, as the case against Molly becomes akin to the “witch trials in old Lakeville”. Indeed, this was Howard DaSilva’s last film for awhile, as the actor wound up on the blacklist. He didn’t make another film until 1961’s DAVID AND LISA. Director Cy Enfield was also blacklisted, and had to move to England to continue his career with films like MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and ZULU. The screenplay by Henry Blankford (adapted by Enfield) contains some great, tough dialog, delivered by Duryea and company with gusto. Also of note is the cinematography by the great Stanley Cortez (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER), whose keen eye adds immensely to the film despite its obvious low budget.

The Familiar Face Brigade is well represented by stalwarts like Phil Arnold, Art Baker , Melville Cooper, Ned Glass, Alan Hale Jr, Frieda Inescort, Donald “Devil Bat” Kerr (once again a photographer!), Edward Van Sloan (yes, of Universal Horror fame!), and ‘The Last Charlie Chan’, Roland Winters. But it’s Dan Duryea who runs away with the acting honors, making the most of his starring opportunity. Plus he gets to clinch Gale Storm in the end. Lucky bastard!

Hell Bent for Vengeance: Randolph Scott in DECISION AT SUNDOWN (Columbia 1957)

I seem to have gained some new channels along with my new DirecTV receiver. I’m not sure why, but I won’t argue…  at least until I see the bill! One of them is Sony Movie Channel, featuring the Columbia Pictures catalog, and I recently viewed DECISION AT SUNDOWN, the third of seven Western collaborations between star Randolph Scott  and director Budd Boetticher. The plot and setting are simple, yet within that framework we get a tense psychological drama about a man consumed by vengeance and hatred.

Scott, still cutting a dashing figure at age 59, plays Bart Allison, who along with his pal Sam, ride into the town of Sundown on the day of Tate Kimbrough’s wedding to Lucy Summerton. Bart’s not there to offer his congratulations though; he announces his intention to kill town boss Tate. The reason: Bart holds Tate responsible for his wife’s suicide three years ago. Bart and Sam then hole up in the livery stable while Tate’s hand-picked sheriff and his men force a stand-off.

To reveal any more of the narrative would be doing a disservice to those who haven’t seen this little gem. Suffice it to say, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. The film is expertly put together by Boetticher, DP Burnett Guffey (Oscar winner for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and BONNIE & CLYDE), and editor Al Clark (ALL THE KING’S MEN, 3:10 TO YUMA ), keeping the suspense tight as possible. Boetticher was a talented director who marched to the beat of his own drum. A trained bullfighter, his breakthrough film was 1951’s THE BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY. He directed the frequently overlooked noir THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956) before embarking on his seven Scott Westerns, then spent over a decade filming and finding financing for his documentary on Mexican matador Carlos Arruza, finally getting a 1972 release. An most interesting man, Boetticher died in 2001.

Scott gives an outstanding performance as Allison, driven by his lust for vengeance. Bart Allison is both a man of principal and tragic figure, and Scott maintains his balance between the two using few words, showing not telling. It’s a difficult role, but Randolph Scott pulls it off in his own inimitable style. His chemistry with Noah Beery Jr, playing loyal friend Sam, is palpable; one can only wish they’d made more films together. Tate Kimbrough is played by John Carroll, who looked and sounded so much like Clark Gable that MGM once tried to promote him as The Next Big Thing. He never quite caught on, probably because the resemblance was too close, and one Gable in Hollywood was enough. Carroll could hold his own in the acting department though, his best known films are probably GO WEST (with the Marx Bros), FLYING TIGERS (with John Wayne), and the Republic serial ZORRO RIDES AGAIN.

Rounding out the cast are Karen Steel (MARTY) as Lucy, Valerie French (JUBAL) as Tate’s former lover Ruby, John Archer ( ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK ) as the sympathetic town doctor, and Andrew Duggan ( THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET ) as the sheriff. Familiar Faces around town include veteran John Litel as Lucy’s father, Richard Deacon, Abel Fernandez, Bob Steele, Vaughn Taylor, Ray Teal, James Westerfield, and H.M. Wynant. If you haven’t watched any of the seven Scott/Boetticher Westerns, you’re missing out on some great filmmaking, and DECISION AT SUNDOWN makes a good  place to start.

 

From the VHS Vault 2: THE VIOLENT YEARS (Headliner Productions 1956)

The drama continues: I received a call from FedEx about the status of my new DirecTV receiver (the old one being fried beyond repair) . The new box is now sitting in a warehouse, undeliverable because DIRECTV GAVE THEM THE WRONG ADDRESS!! You’d think after almost two years they’d have my address, right? Wrong! FedEx told me I have to call DirecTV and have them fix the address or drive an hour out of my way to pick it up myself. So I proceeded to call the corporate beast and was transferred to a woman who barely spoke English, gave her all my information, then was transferred to another woman who spoke even worse English and repeated the process all over again! After a half hour of this nonsense, I was then told I’d have to wait an additional 3-5 days before my new box arrives… hopefully at the right address! ARRRGGGGHH!!!!

Not wanting to keep you all waiting, I went back down into the dusty VHS vault to search for a movie, and came up with something interesting. Not necessarily good, mind you, but interesting. It’s THE VIOLENT YEARS, a 1956 “girl gang” drama in the style of HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS.  The interesting part is this one was written by everyone’s favorite low-budget auteur, the one and only Edward D. Wood, Jr!   Ed isn’t in the director’s chair however, that honor goes to William Morgan, known for… well, not much. This is probably his best-known credit.

My copy of THE VIOLENT YEARS is a 1987 Rhino Video release, part of a series called “Teenage Theater” and hosted by the immortal Mamie Van Doren, who made quite a few of these “girls gone bad” flicks. “Teenage Theater” shed the spotlight on movies about (according to the goofy doo-wop theme song) “wigged out biker babes”, “slick chicks in chains”, “motorcycle madmen”, and “starlets starved for sex”. Mamie gives us some dope on the upcoming movie from a 50’s style soda shoppe, all dolled up in a polka-dot outfit. She was 57 at the time, and still looked pretty hot…

…and she ain’t half-bad today at 87! Anyway, after Mamie does her schtick, we get down to business with THE VIOLENT YEARS. It’s the sordid saga of Paula Parkins (former Playmate Jean Moorhead), whose parents are too busy (dad’s a newspaper editor, mom’s involved with various charities) to figure out 18-year-old Paula is the leader of a Gang of Four female delinquents responsible for a series of robberies in town. We see them in action as, masked with bandanas, they hold up a gas station, then attack a couple on Lover’s Lane, making the girl strip down to her lingerie (exploitation films gotta have a strip scene!), tie her up (exploitation films gotta have a bondage scene!), then take the young man into the woods and (it’s implied) force him to have a gangbang! How that works, I’m not quite sure.

Paula and her pals fence their ill-gotten goods with Sheila, who hires them to trash their school, telling Paula “don’t worry if a few flags get destroyed in the process. Let’s just say it’s part of a well-organized… foreign plan!” Commie bastards! But first, there the obligatory “wild party” scene, consisting of some booze, cigarette smoking, and heavy necking. Reporter Barney Stetson (one of Wood’s best character names!) drops by with Paula’s present, observes the wicked goings-on, and his spidey sense starts tingling. He ends up decking Paula’s date, a greasy reprobate who cleans his fingernails with a switchblade!

It’s now time for the gang to commence on their Commie-funded mission, and they get their kicks wrecking a classroom, but the noise has brought the cops. Paula and the gang then engage in a blazing shootout with the coppers, where two of them wind up dead, and Paula kills a cop! Taking it on the lam, they head to Sheila’s place, and when Paula tells her they offed a cop, Sheila threatens to call the police herself. So Paula, already a murderess, shoots Sheila. But the cops are on Paula’s trail, and a chase ensues in which Paula crashes into a plate-glass window, killing her last remaining friend. Now locked in the jail hospital ward, and pregnant to boot (from the gangbang?), Paula is sentenced to life in prison, and the neglectful parents are denied the right to adopt their granddaughter by Judge Clara, who in typical Wood fashion delivers not one, but two clunky soliloquies as only Ed Wood could write ’em!!

Mamie returns with a coda to end the tape, and we get the cheezy “Teenage Theater” theme once again. THE VIOLENT YEARS doesn’t have much star power, though Wood aficionados will recognize Timothy Farrell from GLEN OR GLENDA and JAIL BAIT. Western buffs will know I. Stanford Jolley as the judge; he usually wore a black hat as a B villain. Barney Stetson is played by Glen Corbett, not to be confused with Glenn Corbett, actor in HOMICIDAL and CHISUM. None of the acting is particularly good, anyway. Truthfully, beside the fact that Ed Wood wrote the script, there’s not a whole lot to recommend here. I pretty much enjoyed watching it backwards while rewinding the tape as I did watching it unfold properly, maybe more so. But hey, a film blogger’s gotta watch something!

From the VHS Vault: The Three Stooges in HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL (Columbia 1959)

My DirecTV receiver decided to fry itself the other day. A new one won’t be shipped for another five days – no TCM, no DVR’d movies, no Red Sox, no nothin’! What’s a film blogger to do? Since my DVD player isn’t working either, I thought I’d reach into my collection of VHS tapes and see what I could come up with for viewing. Hmm, let’s see… wait a sec, what’s this? An unopened copy of HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL, the Three Stooges  comeback starring feature! Good Lord, I haven’t seen this movie in years! The Stooges it is!

A little background first: after making shorts for Columbia since 1934, the studio dumped the trio when their contract ended in 1957. Television had killed the short subject market, and the boys were thrown out on their collective keisters. Ironically, it was television that revived their career when the Stooges shorts were released to TV a year later, and a whole new generation fell in love with their physical slapstick brand of humor. Moe Howard and Larry Fine recruited burlesque comic Joe DeRita (who had his own series of Columbia shorts in the 40’s) to replace Joe Besser. DeRita was a better fit than Besser anyway, and his resemblance to Curly Howard (always the most popular Stooge) led to him being dubbed Curly Joe. The reconfigured Stooges toured successfully, and Columbia came crawling back to star them in a feature film titled HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL.

HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL isn’t vintage Stooges, but it’s not half bad, either. The Stooges are bumbling janitors at the “National Space Foundation” who are accidentally locked in a rocket ship and blast-off for Venus, encountering a giant fire-breathing tarantula, a talking unicorn, and a robot super-computer who shrinks them to mouse-size and makes android clones of them. They return to Earth as heroes, are given a ticker-tape parade and a gala celebration, a distinguished affair that devolves into a slap-happy donnybrook. The whole thing gives them an excuse to trot some of their old schtick like the “plumbing” gag, the “chased through multiple doors” gag, and the “couch-spring-stuck-in-the-rear-end” gag. They even get to exercise their tonsils, breaking into song about halfway through, a ditty called… what else, “Have Rocket, Will Travel”!

The Stooges are a bit more kinder and gentler here, older but definitely not wiser. The familiar eye pokes, hair-pulling, and face slapping are still around, as are the familiar sound effects, and Moe still hurls insults at his partners (at one point calling Curly Joe “ya baby hippopotamus”). Robert Colbert (later of TV’s THE TIME TUNNEL) and Anna-Lisa provide the romance, while veteran character actor Jerome Cowan takes his lumps as the Stooges’ foil, head of the space foundation. HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL was aimed directly at their new juvenile audience and is ultra low-budget, with cheezy special effects and cardboard sets, but fans of the boys will enjoy revisiting their antics. I know I sure did!

Rockin’ in the Film World #10: THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT (20th Century Fox 1956)

Frank Tashlin  combines two of 50’s America’s favorite obsessions, sex & rock’n’roll, in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, Jayne Mansfield’s first headlight headlining role. When Jayne sashays across the screen, turning heads, melting ice, boiling milk, and cracking eyeglasses a star is born, in CinemaScope and gorgeous DeLuxe color. But the film is stacked with more than just Jayne’s Twin Peaks; it features performances from rock royalty like Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, The Platters, and a host of others.

The plot is very simple (and very familiar): a goony gangster (broadly played by a hilarious Edmond O’Brien ) hires a down-on-his-luck agent (Tom Ewell of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH) to make a singing star out of his honey (our girl Jayne). Only problem is, Jayne can’t carry a tune in a bucket, shattering lightbulbs whenever she starts to warble. Seems she doesn’t want to be a star anyway, just to settle down and be domestic. Tom and Jayne quietly fall in love, the gangster gets jealous, and you just know that by film’s end everything will turn out for the best.

Interspersed in all this are the cream of classic 50’s rockers belting out their big ti.. er, hits! Little Richard does the title tune, “Ready Teddy”, and “She’s Got It”. The Three Chuckles (whose lead singer Teddy Randazzo costarred with Tuesday Weld in ROCK ROCK ROCK  ) perform “Cinnamon Sinner”. Fats Domino lends his New Orleans-flavored R&B to “Blue Monday”. Gene Vincent blasts his mega-hit “Be-Bop-A-Lula”. Eddie Cochran belts out “Twenty Flight Rock”. Abby Lincoln does a Gospel-tinged “Spread the Word”. The Platters doo-wop to “You’ll Never, Never Know”, and Nino Tempo, Johnny Olenn, Eddie Fontaine, The Treniers, and Freddy Bell & The Bell-Boys also appear.

Tashlin’s trademark cartoony gags bounce playfully throughout the film, beginning right off the bat with the pre-credits introduction by Ewell. It’s packed with double entendres by the truckload, most of them involving Jayne’s ample endowments. There’s a funny fantasy scene where Ewell, still carrying the torch for ex-client Julie London, sees her everywhere singing her own big hit, “Cry Me A River” (and by the way, the future Nurse Dixie McCall of TV’s EMERGENCY was pretty darn hot herself!). Surpassing that is the sight of O’Brien gyrating wildly and croaking out the song “Rock Around the Rock Pile”, a precursor of sorts to Elvis Presley’s showstopping number in JAILHOUSE ROCK .

Despite the classic rockers, Tashlin’s Looney Tunes humor, and a beautiful pastel color scheme, all eyes will be on Jayne Mansfield. She’s really good in this, giving a sweet-natured performance as the girl who just can’t help it. Jayne was red-hot at the time due to her Broadway smash WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? (later filmed by Tashlin), and 20th Century Fox signed her as a rival to Marilyn Monroe. She was a good actress, though now best remembered for her sexpot image, and it’s a shame her career took such a downward trajectory so fast. With the right material, we’d probably be looking at Jayne Mansfield today for more than her obvious assets.

Legend has it when THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT was released in England, a 16-year-old kid in Liverpool saw his rock idols perform for the first time. The lad’s name was John Lennon, and soon he met 15-year-old Paul McCartney, who auditioned for Lennon’s teenage band by doing an imitation of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” from the film. McCartney got the gig, and within a few years The Beatles  were the biggest rock’n’roll band in the world. That’s how influential THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT was in the history of rock’n’roll, and any fan of rock music, Jayne Mansfield, or Frank Tashlin needs to put it on their must-see list.



 

Diamond in the Rough: RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (Allied Artists 1954)

Back in 1951, movie producer Walter Wanger (rhymes with danger) discovered his wife, actress Joan Bennett , was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. The enraged husband tracked them to a parking lot, where Wanger shot Lang in the groin. That’ll teach him! Wanger was subsequently arrested, and sentenced to serve a four-month bid in a Los Angeles county farm. His stint in stir, though brief, affected him profoundly, and he wanted to make a film about prison conditions. The result was RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, a ripped-from-the-headlines prison noir that’s tougher than a two-dollar steak.

Wanger hired Don Siegel to direct the film. Siegel was gaining a reputation as a director of muscular, low-budget features, and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 is a great early example of his harsh, brutal style. The movie’s sparse, shadowy setting was filmed on location at California’s infamous Folsom Prison thanks to the connections of one of Siegel’s assistants, a young man working on his first film named Sam Peckinpah . Gee, I wonder whatever became of him?

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 opens with narrator James Matthews intoning ominous newsreel footage of prison riots across the USA protesting inhumane conditions. We then turn to our fictional prison, where a single mistake by a rookie guard leads to chaos in Cell Block 11, led by hardened cons Dunn (Neville Brand ) and Carnie (Leo Gordon). They take over the solitary confinement block, using four guards as hostages, and trash the place. The warden (Emile Meyer) is called in as the inmates present their demands, and insist the press be alerted as well.

The entire prison devolves into chaos and rioting, and the state police are called in to quell things with smoke bombs and rubber bullets. An inmate is accidentally killed during the commotion, and five other guards are snatched by the cons. The warden hears Dunn’s demands: remodel the condemned solitary block, separate “the nuts” (those with mental health issues) from the other cons, get rid of leglocks and overzealous guards, teach the men a trade, and absolutely no reprisals for the rioters.

The warden has been asking for some of these same changes for years, but his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. He’s willing to sign off on them now, but the governor (Thomas Henry Browne) refuses, and the prison commissioner (Frank Faylen) orders TNT to be planted on the outside wall of the cell block. Meanwhile, warring factions in the cell block leave Dunn injured, and his lieutenant “Crazy Mike” Carnie takes command. Carnie plans to begin killing hostages, but when the commissioner’s plot is discovered, they chain the hostages to a pipe on the other side of the wall. Dunn recuperates just in time to take a phone call from the warden: the governor has relented, and the prisoner’s demands for change will be met. But two weeks later, it turns out it was all for naught. The state legislature repudiates the warden’s and governor’s signatures, and Dunn is to stand trial for leading a riot and kidnapping the guards. Though Carnie and some of the other “nuts” are sent to the State Mental Institution, the rest of the demands will not be met.

The cast of RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 consists of some legitimate hard guys. Neville Brand was a highly decorated soldier during World War II, earning a Purple Heart, Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and six other medals for bravery and valor in combat. Leo Gordon was thrown out of the Army, and later served five years in San Quentin for armed robbery. The warden of Folsom reused to let Gordon in at first, but Siegel, who once called Gordon “the scariest man I have ever met”, talked him into it. Among the cons, guards, and reporters, you’ll find Familiar Faces like Whit Bissell (whose first credited role was in BRUTE FORCE ), Roy Glenn, Dabbs Greer (whose final film appearance was in THE GREEN MILE), Frank Hagney, Jonathan Hole, Alvy Moore , William Phipps, William Schallert , and Carleton Young. Some of the actual Folsom cons and guards appear as extras.

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 tells a very bleak tale of desperate people driven to desperate measures. It’s lean and mean, like the best films noir, and delivers it’s message with sledgehammer potency. This compact diamond-in-the-rough is among director Siegel’s best work, and is highly recommended by yours truly.