After editing montage sequences at Warner Bros. during World War II, Don Siegel made his directing debut with two shorts, both of which won Oscars in the same year. Neat trick. After being promoted to making features, his output was of mixed quality until his eighth feature, "Riot in Cell Block 11." Two years later, he solidified his reputation with the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and went on to direct "Dirty Harry" and other major Clint Eastwood films.
"Riot" was a Hollywood film, but didn't feel like one. This story — about a group of prisoners who rebel in protest of abusive conditions — had no female characters shoehorned into the plot by contrivance and no real stars. What it did have was a collection of fine character actors, who were to become ubiquitous presences on television for the next two decades — Neville Brand, Leo Gordon, Dabbs Greer, Emile Meyer, Whit Bissell, Frank Faylen, Robert Osterloh, Don Keefer, William Schallert, Thomas Browne Henry and Harry Lauter. Even if most of these names mean nothing to you, you'd immediately recognize their faces. Brand (who went on to portray Al Capone on "The Untouchables") was particularly memorable as the leader of the revolt — scary and sympathetic at the same time.
The film came out during the first flush of widescreen releases and was apparently shown in a variety of matted formats. Criterion correctly presents it in standard "Academy ratio" (1.37:1). The transfer is fine; but the extras are slight, all strictly audio. In addition to an hourlong 1953 radio documentary about prison conditions, we also get Siegel's son, actor Kristoffer Tabori, reading the relevant pages from Siegel's autobiography and from Stuart Kaminsky's 1974 Siegel book, totaling about 40 minutes. Most amusing is Siegel's story of how he reluctantly agreed to hire an assistant who had no film experience — a kid named Sam Peckinpah. There is a dry but informative commentary track by scholar Matthew H. Bernstein, who seems to know his material, but bafflingly gets Schallert's name wrong.
Riot in Cell Block 11 (Criterion, dual-format Blu-ray/DVD edition, $39.95; DVD, $24.95)
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).