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Trailers from Hell Starts a ‘Riot in Cell Block 11’

Trailers from Hell Starts a 'Riot in Cell Block 11'

Today on Trailers from Hell, director Joe Dante talks up 1954’s prison-based drama “Riot in Cell Block 11,” starring Neville Brand and Frank Faylen.

An intelligent, well-acted “message” melodrama hides behind that hard-nosed title. Directed by Don Siegel at his most primal, the film’s violence erupts in compelling contrast to the quiet intelligence of the screenplay by Richard Collins (“My Gun is Quick”). Its empathetic attitude is due in some part to veteran producer Walter Wanger whose recent stint in the slammer moved him to advocate for improved prison conditions. Starring Neville Brand as the firebrand who instigates the protests and, as “Crazy Mike Carnie”, real-life ex-con Leo Gordon, who Siegel described as “the scariest man I have ever met ” but went on to a long career as a dependable character actor. This was the beginning of Siegel’s longtime friendship with Sam Peckinpah who served as dialog director on this and several other Siegel films including “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

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Despite the liberal soup about prison reform and the call for greater humanity, Riot In Cell Block 11 is also about the horror of the white, straight mob of the 50s beating a rare African American who DOESN'T want to riot and the murder of a psychotic homosexual tossed off with general approval. Fake prison reform leads to fake prison reform, the color of the prison population darkens and the homosexuals behind bars are still psychotic and still murdered. Sixty years later what have we learned?


Dante mentions Sam Peckinpah's work on the film as a "problem-solver," but doesn't go into detail on the story of how Peckinpah's presence on the crew got the filmmakers some key cooperation from prison officials. Seems they knew and respected Peckinpah's family–he came from a long line of California-based judges and district attorneys–and when he was introduced and then asked if he was related to so-and-so, and he'd say yeah that's my father or that's my uncle, doors were opened. I think that story was in Stuart Kaminsky's book on Siegel.

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