Riots in American prisons are becoming increasingly common. And now another has erupted: one inmate (Neville Brand) has led the men of Cell Block 11, the worst offenders in their prison, into revolt, holding guards hostage and threatening to kill them if their demands are not met. But they don't want to escape: they want better and more humane conditions...
Richard Collins wrote this "torn from the headlines" hardboiled drama, which carried on the tradition of the social issues films of the thirties and forties, where topical news stories inspired sensational storylines. Riot in Cell Block 11 even starts with a newsreel of footage from recent disturbances and an interview with an expert to back up its claims to be working in the public interest.
Violence has put the prisoners where they are, and it's violence that becomes their chief way of expressing themselves and, sadly, their main liability - they even end up fighting amongst each other. Compare that with the authorities' heated discussions, which tend toward oppressive answers, despite the prison Warden's protests. In a rare starring role, burly, rasping-voiced Brand makes the most of his opportunities, turning in an aggressive, intelligent performance: when he says he'll kill a guard for every prisoner shot, we believe him. Leo Gordon also makes an impression as his dangerous second-in-command.
Siegel keeps the tension simmering throughout, whether its with the frequent bursts of brutality (stabbing the Commissioner!) or his well-organised crowd scenes. Actual Folsom Prison locations and stark, black and white photography add a sharp edge to an already gritty movie. The social concerns are never far away: we're told that 65% of criminals reoffend, and the politics of reform are constantly on the agenda (in between the mayhem, anyway). But the downbeat ending suggests not so much that a compromise can be reached, rather that there will be no effective solution to the problem. Music by Herschel Burke Gilbert.