Riot in Cell Block 11 (Don Siegel / U.S., 1954):

"In the prison of his days," Don Siegel registers the clash of social forces at its most crystalline. He opens with a newsreel flurry before setting the volatile keynote with a swift shock, a deep-focus vantage from the guard's tower that yields to a two-second close-up of the buzzing lock on the grilled fence. Real walls, real cells (dark iron doors against lumpy white rock presents the bowels of Folsom Penitentiary like streamlined catacombs), the image is a network of grids to be scorched by roiling human tumult. The spark goes off in the isolation unit, between the pummeling psycho (Leo Gordon) and the reasonable vet (Robert Osterloh) rests the cinderblock mug of the uprising's leader (Neville Brand). Reform rather than escape is the objective, nevertheless the press has its preferred narrative ("Yeah, wild dogs running wild"), warden (Emile Meyer) and commissioner (Frank Faylen) supply the institutional voices. "Good and bad, just like on the outside." Dassin's Brute Force is visible on its way to Becker's Le Trou, though the beautiful acceleration of visceral combustion is Siegel's own: The tossed tray in the mess hall balloons into full-scale fire and tear-gas in the yard, a hard panning view of the ensuing rubble evokes the landscape after battle. Dynamite and chisel on one side and tied-up hostages on the other for a crunched Doré composition (cf. Pontecorvo's La Battaglia di Algeri), the line between slow change and lost cause, an intimation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers ("We all fight for our identity, and you help destroy that"). From this position (tête contre les murs, as Franju would have it), a long winnowing process to the calm of Escape from Alcatraz. Cinematography by Russell Harlan. With Paul Frees, Don Keefer, Alvy Moore, Dabbs Greer, Whit Bissell, Whit Bissell, and Carleton Young. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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