Opening with a pseudo-newsreel documenting prison riots across the USA, you would expect Riot in Cell Block 11 to be quite preachy. In fact it’s rather nuanced for a film from the early 1950s. Don Siegel would become known for cynical loners, but here he presents a film with a message.
The crux of the film is the titular riot is caused because the inmates are fed up with the conditions they are kept in. Prisoners are sleeping in hallways due to overcrowding. Others have mental health issues and are not really criminals and require help that a prison is not equipped to give. Guards are sadistic and there is just a general mistreatment. You would expect a film of the 50s to straight up condemn the inmates, but it doesn’t do that. It doesn’t lionize them either. It simply makes the case that these men despite their crimes are still human and deserve to be treated humanly. The film even addressed recidivism because the treatment inside does not help to readjust them to their potential return to society.
I think the film manages to get its point across and one way it does that is by having no big stars to focus on. You get a series of faces and by that measure you aren’t watching John Wayne or Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck. You don’t get to escape with a familiar face. The public is also taken to task because once criminals are locked away we lock them away in our minds. We are free, they are not. Why bother thinking on them? The riot brings the issues to public attention.
Riot In Cell Block 11 is a film whose message reverberates even beyond the 50s. In 2020 these discussions are still being had.