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.

The Perfect Crime Film: KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (United Artists 1952)

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My friend Rob suggested I review KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL awhile back, and I’m sorry I waited so long. This is a film noir lover’s delight, packed with tension, violence, double-crosses, and a head-turning performance by John Payne in the lead. Made on an economical budget like the same year’s THE NARROW MARGIN , director Phil Karlson and George Diskant create a shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere brimming with danger at every turn.

I knew Payne mainly from his 40’s musicals and his idealistic lawyer opposite Maureen O’Hara in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, but he’s a revelation here as Joe Rolfe, a florist truck driver who’s set up as a patsy by a gang of armored car robbers. He can dish out (and take) beatings with the best them, and delivers the tough-talking dialog with aplomb. KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL helped Payne shed his lightweight image, and he went on to do other dark crime films and rugged Westerns. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for them!

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The plot isn’t overly complex: ex-cop Tim Foster. aka ‘Mr.Big’, hires three hoods to commit “the perfect crime”, a meticulously planned robbery in broad daylight. He insists all four of them wear masks so no one knows the other’s identity except himself. Timed to the last second, the caper goes off without a hitch, and Foster gives the goons each a torn-in-half king playing card, telling them he’ll contact them after the heat dies down to split the loot. Rolfe is grilled by the police, but ultimately let go when his alibi checks out.

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But he’s lost his job, and the now destitute Rolfe discovers there’s a 25% reward for finding the missing $1.2 million stolen in the robbery. Getting a hot tip from his bartender buddy, Rolfe flies to Tijuana and shadows Pete Harris, a degenerate gambler who may have been involved. He confronts Harris and beats the truth out of him, and is about to accompany the crook to Barados when Pete’s gunned down by the Mexican police at the airport. Rolfe then decides to impersonate Harris, since the gang have never laid eyes on one another.

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There he encounters Tony Romano and Boyd Kane, and after a suspicious Romano tosses his room, learns the pair were in on the heist. Foster is also at the resort, and we learn why he planned it all: after being forced to retire for backing the wrong politician, Foster plans to swerve the crooks and collect that  reward himself. Complicating things is Helen, Foster’s law student daughter, who arrived on the plane with Rolfe and is romantically interested in him.

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The violence is both realistic and graphic. I found the scene where Rolfe has Romano in a stranglehold, shoving a pistol under his chin, particularly brutal. Editor Buddy Small, son of producer Edward, keeps things tight, and Diskant’s black & white photography shows why he was one of the great noir cinematographers. Phil Karlson learned his craft directing Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys entries at Monogram, and made some solid 50’s noirs, including the ferocious THE PHENIX CITY STORY . He later remade KID GALAHAD with Elvis Presley, did a pair of Dean Martin/Matt Helm flicks, and the classic 1973 WALKING TALL. His career is well worth a look for film fans.

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KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL costars four of the screen’s baddest bad guys. Veteran Preston Foster gives heft to the role of Mr. Big, Jack Elam plays the chain-smoking Harris, oily Lee Van Cleef is womanizer Romano, and Neville Brand is chilling as the gum-chewing Kane. Pretty Coleen Gray rounds out the cast as Foster’s daughter Helen. Some of the plot elements here were reworked into Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut RESERVOIR DOGS; much as I liked that film, I think KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL surpasses it. Thanks for the recommendation, Rob!