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.

Victim of Love: Clint Eastwood in THE BEGUILED (Universal 1971)

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THE BEGUILED was the third of five collaborations between star Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel. It’s definitely the most offbeat, a Gothic Western set during the Civil War. Clint plays John McBurney, a wounded, half-dead Yankee found in the woods by one of the girls from Miss Martha’s Seminary for Young Ladies. What unfolds from there is unlike anything the duo ever did before or after, a tale of sexual desire and vengeance that’s one of the most unusual entries in the Western canon.

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Clint Eastwood has one of his most unsympathetic roles as McBurney. Although we feel bad about the condition he’s in, we soon realize what an amoral, manipulative scoundrel he is. Flashbacks reveal his lies about his role in the Union Army. Even as he suffers some major “misery” (hint, hint) at the hands of Miss Martha, Clint’s McBurney isn’t a likeable figure. This offbeat casting probably contributed to the film’s box office failure, as audiences were used to seeing Clint being a mythic hero rather than a flawed human being.

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The ladies of THE BEGUILED all have their secrets. Miss Martha (Gerladine Page) was romantically involved with the school’s co-founder, who happened to be her brother. Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) is a sexually repressed virgin, while Carol (JoAnn Harris) is completely uninhibited. Hallie (blues singer Mae Mercer), a slave working for the school, has been abused by white men. Doris (Darleen Carr) is a staunch supporter of the Confederacy who finds Miss Martha’s harboring of McBurney an act of treason. Then there’s young Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), the 12-year-old woman-child who falls hard for the handsome “Mr. McB”, only to have her love turn to hate when he drunkenly kills her pet turtle, and she becomes the instrument of the women’s revenge.

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 Geraldine Page had a wonderful career on stage, screen ,and television, and is regarded as one of the greatest actresses of her generation. I especially enjoyed her work in HONDO, SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, and the NIGHT GALLERY episode “The Sins of the Fathers”. Nominated for eight Oscars, Page finally won for THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL. Elizabeth Hartman is best remembered for A PATCH OF BLUE and WALKING TALL. Darlene Carr and JoAnn Harris were prolific TV actresses during the 70’s. Melody Thomas (Abigail) went on to a 37 year run on the soap THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS.

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Young Pamelyn Ferdin plays Amy, the little girl who finds McBurney. The scene where 41-year-old Clint kisses 12-year-old Pamelyn to keep her quiet while the Confederate patrol passes borders on pedophilia, and made me kind of queasy. Ferdin was a child star of the 60’s-70’s who made the TV rounds (she was Felix’s daughter on THE ODD COUPLE), and voiced Lucy in three “Peanuts” specials and movies. She also known for her performance in another creepy 70’s tale, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS.

THE BEGUILED isn’t your typical Eastwood/Siegel outing, but it will hold your interest. The acting and direction are top-notch, and the atmospheric material will please fans of Westerns and horror, and is well worth viewing today. Clint and Don failed only at the box office, as fans didn’t want to watch Clint Eastwood in such an unsavory role.  They did better with their next collaboration, a little cop movie called DIRTY HARRY.  But that’s another story for another day…

A Dying Man, Scared of the Dark: John Wayne in THE SHOOTIST (Paramount 1976)

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THE SHOOTIST is John Wayne’s valedictory statement, a final love letter to his many fans. The Duke was now 69 years old and not in the best of health. He’d had a cancerous lung removed back in 1964, and though the cancer was in remission, Wayne must’ve knew his days were numbered when he made this film. Three years later, he died from cancer of the stomach, intestines, and spine. There were worries about his ability to make this movie, but Wayne loved the script and was determined to do it. The result is an elegy to not only the aging actor, but to the Western genre as a whole.

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The movie begins with footage of older Wayne westerns (EL DORADO, HONDO, RED RIVER, RIO BRAVO) narrated by Ron Howard (Gillom). “His name was J.B. Books…he wasn’t an outlaw. Fact is, for a while he was a lawman…He had a credo that went, ‘I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them’ “.  Books arrives in Carson City, Nevada in the year 1901, a thriving city in a changing world. He’s come to visit his old friend Doc Hostetler (James Stewart), and get a second opinion. Hostetler examines him and gives Books the bad news, ” You have a cancer…advanced”. The doctor can’t do anything to help his friend, except give him Laudanum for the pain. Describing how the end will come, Hostetler says, “I don’t think the death I just described to you is the one I would choose”.

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Books decides to spend his last days in Carson City, taking a room with widowed Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her restless son Gillom. The young man idolizes Books when he finds out his identity, treating him like rock-star royalty. Others in the town aren’t so welcoming, including Marshal Thibido (Harry Morgan) and Mike Sweeney (Richard Boone), an ornery cuss whose brother was killed by Books. News of the celebrity in Carson City spreads, with faro dealer Jack Pulford (Hugh O’Brien) and local tough guy Jay Cobb (Bill McKinney) wondering how they would fare against the dying gunfighter.

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Others seek to cash in on Books’ pending demise. Newspaperman Dobkins (Rick Lenz) wants to write up a series of articles on Books’ colorful career, only to receive a gun in the mouth and a boot in the ass for his nerve. Former flame Serepta (Sheree North) wants to marry him and trade in on his name.  Undertaker Hezekiah Beckum (John Carradine in a wonderful cameo) offers a free funeral, hoping to put Books’ body on display, but ends up paying Books. The doomed Books, who only seeks to die with dignity and honor, devises a plan once the pain becomes too great to bear. He has Gillom invite Pulford, Sweeney, and Cobb to join him Monday morning for a last stand that’s tensely staged… and comes with a surprise twist.

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Don Siegel  directed THE SHOOTIST with his usual style, handling the well-stocked cast of veterans. Bacall, Boone, Carradine, and Stewart had all costarred with The Duke in films past, making this a sort of last round-up for them all. Bacall is particularly good as the widow Rogers, who despises Books at first until she learns he’s dying of cancer (Bacall’s first husband, the great Humphrey Bogart, died of the disease). Then her Christian charity shines through, and though she disapproves of his former lifestyle, the two gain a mutual respect. Ron Howard has what’s probably his best film role here, a long way from Opie in THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and Richie in HAPPY DAYS. The superstar director of today gives a terrific performance, having honed his acting chops by working with so many legendary actors and directors in his career. Gillom is a young wastrel with no solid direction in his life until he meets Books. His involvement in the final shootout scene evokes strong emotions in anyone who watches this film.

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The screenplay by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale is full of memorable dialogue. I love the use of language in this film, it has a poetic quality to it that separates it from the usual Wayne Western. The actors all deliver their lines with conviction, and it’s no surprise considering that marvelous cast. Besides those I’ve mentioned, Scatman Crothers also shines in his small role. But it’s John Wayne who dominates the show. The Duke may move a little slower, and his voice may be ravaged by time and illness, but he’s still The Duke. The cancer that eventually killed him hadn’t been detected yet, but somewhere in the back of his mind I’m sure Wayne knew THE SHOOTIST would be his last cinematic stand. His final public appearance was at the 1979 Academy Awards:

(One trivia note: Charles G. Martin plays the man who guns down Wayne. The Duke also bit the dust onscreen in only six other films. Can you name them?)

Paranoia Strikes Deep: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (Allied Artists 1956; United Artists 1978)

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These two versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS have much in common. Both are visions of the paranoia of their times disguised in the veneer of science fiction. But while the 1956 film is an allegoric warning of the dangers of Communism, its 1978 remake focuses on conspiracy theory paranoia in the post-Watergate era. The films are equally good reflections of the times they were made, and the differences lie mainly in the visions of directors Don Siegel (’56) and Philip Kaufman (’78).

Siegel’s roots were planted firmly in the old studio system. He began his career at Warners, then RKO before moving onto to independent productions in the mid-50s. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was made for Allied Artists (formerly known as Monogram, home of The Bowery Boys and Bela Lugosi quickies.) Siegel was well versed in working within budgetary constraints. Early films like PRIVATE HELL 36 and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 were low-budget but effective noirs notable for their toughness. Siegel’s version of the story has that noirish  feel to it, with the protagonist caught in an ever-downward spiral towards an inescapable fate.

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Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is being held in the mental ward at a hospital. He’s hysterical, screaming about an impending doomsday. Psychiatrist Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) is called in, and Bennell recounts the story of what’s been happening in his sleepy little suburb of Santa Mira, California. Bennell had just returned from a vacation when he’s told about a strange phenomenon occurring in town. People have been reporting their loved ones aren’t really their loved ones…they’re imposters. A young boy claims his mom is not his mom. Bennell’s girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) has a cousin who insists Uncle Ira is not Uncle Ira. Psychiatrist friend Dr. Kauffman thinks it’s mass hysteria caused by “what’s going on in the world”. But Bennell has nagging doubts about that diagnosis, doubts that are confirmed when he goes to Jack and Teddy Belicec’s (King Donovan, Carolyn Jones) home to discover a body on their pool table. An unformed body, approximately the same height and weight as Jack!

Things go steadily downhill as Bennell and Becky and the Belicecs find weird seed pods in the greenhouse. The pods bubble and ooze, popping out newly minted body doubles of the quartet. They burn the pods, and soon find out most of Santa Mira has been taken over by the pod people. Bennell and Becky are now hunted by the pod people, who are intent on making the couple one of them. The key is to stay awake, for only while humans sleep can the pod people take over their bodies. Bennell and Becky finally escape through an old tunnel, hearing music when they get to the other side. Bennell investigates, thinking there must be other humans, but is shocked to find the music’s coming from a pod farm! He goes back to Becky and kisses her, and to his horror realizes she fell asleep, and is now one of them! Bennell is chased to the highway, frantically trying to flag down drivers, yelling, ” Listen to me! Listen to me! They’re here! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next!” The drivers pass him by, thinking he’s just drunk or some kind of nut.

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Dr. Hill listens, but dismisses Bennell’s tale as the rantings of a deranged man. He leaves the room just as an accident victim is being brought into the hospital. It seems his truck was broadsided, and he was trapped by the weight of its load… filled with pods! Hill immediately realizes Bennell’s telling the truth, and calls the authorities. This INVASION ends on a positive note, with hope for mankind’s future. The message is quite clear, to remain aware and act when necessary. 50s worries about Communist infiltration (whether real or imagined) were at their peak during this era, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS offers a chilling warning to its audience. All the best science fiction includes some underlying message, and Siegel’s movie delivers without hitting the viewer over the head,  his film noir touch only adding to the frightening mood.

Philip Kaufman is rooted in another film school altogether, that of the director as auteur. Kaufman’s works are a product of the individualistic cinema of the 1970s, when visionaries like Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola were creating genre-bending films based on traditional themes like THE LONG GOODBYE and THE CONVERSATION. His influences were French New Wave directors like Goddard and Truffaut, and independent American mavericks like John Cassavettes and, to a lesser extent, Don Siegel. Kaufman’s version of INVASION ratchets up the paranoia, giving the viewer a much bleaker perspective of a world where it may indeed be far too late for hope.

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Kaufman’s protagonist is now Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), and his occupation has been changed to Public Health inspector. A bigger change is in moving the setting from quiet suburbia to bustling San Francisco. This widens the scope of the horror, as we see even large cities aren’t safe from the vast conspiracy. It’s not just happening in some small, out-of-the-way burg, it’s right here in Big City America. Bennell’s colleague, microbiologist Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), believes her once-affectionate husband Geoffrey (Art Hindle) “is not Geoffrey” anymore. He’s now aloof, meeting with strange people, and always away from home. Bennell brings Elizabeth to see his friend, pop psychologist Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy in a brilliant piece of casting).   Kibner has heard this complaint recently from others, and spouts some platitudes about a “hallucinatory flu” going around, caused mainly by people just not listening to each other anymore.

Bonnell’s friends Jack and Nancy Belicec (Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright) run a trendy Mud Bath health spa, and a cocoon-like body is found there. Bennell sees it, and begins to believe Elizabeth’s story. Bennell rushes to her and spies her doppelgänger in the greenhouse growing while she sleeps. He grabs her and returns to the Bellicec’s. Kibner is called in, but the body is nowhere to be found. Kibner’s still skeptical, and suggests they all get a good night’s sleep. It’s only when the camera follows him outside that we learn the truth… Kibner is one of THEM!

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Bennell’s stymied at every turn by government bureaucracy, passing him from one department to the next, some not taking his calls at all. The exhausted quartet finally fall asleep, and the pods try to overtake them, nearly encompassing Bennell until Elizabeth’s screams wake him up. They run but they can’t hide, and the rest of the film generally follows the original’s path except for a completely different ending that I won’t spoil here.

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Kaufman pays homage to the first film with cameos by Kevin McCarthy (virtually recreating his iconic highway scene) and director Siegel (as a cab driver who’s not what he seems). The newer INVASION utilizes sound editing to build up the terror, something the quieter original didn’t capitalize on. And the larger budget means better special effects, including a bit where a street singer’s head is transposed on his dog’s body. Kaufman’s version is closer to horror than noir, and it also has a sense of humor not found in the 1956 INVASION.  I like both versions, but enjoyed the Kaufman version just a bit more. Growing up in the 70s, I’m well aware that governments cannot be trusted. Young people today share these sentiments with me, at least some of them do. The story’s been retold twice since 1978, in BODY SNATCHER (1993) directed by Abel Ferrara, and 2007’s THE INVASION, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Neither has had the impact the first two films did, both of which can hold their own in the horror/science fiction pantheon. I suppose as long as people are worried about conspiracies and the dehumanization of mankind, the story will be retold again. It’s only when we STOP worrying about what’s really going on behind the curtain that we as a species will truly be in trouble.

 

But Could He Act?: Elvis Presley in FLAMING STAR (20th Century Fox, 1960)

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Elvis Presley left this Earthly building on August 16, 1977. The King was undoubtably one of the greatest entertainers of his (or any) generation. He brought rock’n’roll into the mainstream, recorded country and gospel albums, and his stage shows were legendary. The movies, however, were another story. Critics complained about him being a ‘one-note’ actor in a series of formulaic musicals. But Elvis’s early films tell another story. Case in point: the 1960 Western drama FLAMING STAR.

Directed by Don Siegel (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, DIRTY HARRY, THE SHOOTIST), Elvis gives a well-rounded performance as Pacer Burton, a half-breed youth caught in the middle of a war between white settlers and Kiowas in 1878 Texas. Pacer’s father Sam (John McIntire) is white, his mother Neddy (Dolores Del Rio) Kiowa. He has a half-brother, Clint (Steve Forrest), who chooses family over factions. When the neighboring Howard clan is attacked by a Kiowa war party led by bloodthirsty new chief Buffalo Horn (in a pretty violent for its time scene), the local townsfolk shun the Burtons. Buffalo Horn wants Pacer to renounce his white heritage and join with the Kiowas, but the youngster refuses. Neddy and Pacer go to the Indian camp to talk with their relatives, but they’re shunned by the tribe as well.

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When the two are escorted back to their ranch by Pacer’s friend Two Moons, they’re ambushed by the lone Howard survivor, who kills Two Moons and mortally wounds Neddy. The brothers race to town to get a doctor. The townsfolk refuse to help until Pacer grabs the doctor’s little girl and forces the doctor to accompany them. But they arrive too late, as Neddy sees “the flaming star of death”, and wanders outside to die, where she’s found by her husband in a heart wrenching scene well-played by veterans Del Rio and McIntire.

Pacer blames the doctor for wasting time back at town and goes after him with a knife. Clint restrains him, but the headstrong Pacer has had enough. Tired of dealing with white prejudice, he leaves to join the Kiowa, bring the body of Two Moons with him. Pa Burton is killed by marauding Indians, and Clint goes after them alone. He kills Buffalo Horn, but gets shot by arrows. Brother Pacer saves him, hiding him under a tree, and draws the Kiowa away. He ties Clint to a horse and sends him to the white town while vowing to fight the Kiowa alone at their ranch. Later we see Pacer ride into town, bloodied, shot, dying. He too has seen “the flaming star of death”, but wanted to see his brother one last time before going to the hills to die.

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Director Siegel was noted for his violent action movies, and FLAMING STAR doesn’t disappoint. Siegel, who guided young Clint Eastwood early in his career, gets a good performance out of Presley. Elvis shows a wide range of emotion as the conflicted half-breed torn between the whites and the Kiowas. The rawness of his reaction to the death of his mother was probably real, as Elvis’s own mother Gladys had died just two years previous to the making of this movie.

Given a sure-handed director like Siegel, a well written screenplay (by Nunnally Johnson  and Clair Huffaker), and surrounded with seasoned pros like Del Rio, McIntire, and the rest of the cast (Forrest, Barbara Eden, Richard Jaeckel, Rodolpho Acosta), Elvis proves he had what it takes to be a fine dramatic actor. In films like this,KING CREOLE, and WILD IN THE COUNTRY, Elvis more than holds his own in the thespic department. It was only later, in fluff like PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE and SPEEDWAY, that The King chose to sleepwalk through his roles. Can you blame him? He must have been bored to death with the lame scripts. It was rumored Presley was up for the part of Joe Buck in 1969’s MIDNIGHT COWBOY, but it was nixed by his manager, the carny con man Col. Tom Parker. That’s a shame, because Elvis could’ve done so much more with his film career. At least we’re left with his terrific showing in FLAMING STAR and a handful of others.

Long Live The King!!

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