Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954): Social Commentary in The Guise of Exploitation

Riotcellblockpost.jpgIf you’re like me you met Don Siegel because of Dirty Harry (1971) or maybe The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). But it was only after discovering the rest of his work — the likes of The Big Steal (1949), The Lineup (1958), or even this film, where you began to appreciate the consummate craftsman that he was.

The film makes a creative choice to set up its narrative with real-life newsreel footage of prison riots across America and this is no facsimile; it feels like the real deal. This decision begins with the initial impetus of producer Walter Wang to make a picture authentic to the plight of prisoners. Showing the inside and the inherent issues with such mass incarceration. Why would he have such a stake in telling these stories in a picture like Riot in Cell Block 11 or I Want to Live (1958)?

It’s because he actually spent a spell in prison himself after shooting his wife’s lover. That is a whole different story, but it gives us some context for the aims of this project.

Compared to Brute Force (1947) or Caged (1950), for instance, this is not simply a story of brutality at the hands of some maniacal prison guard like Hume Cronyn or Hope Emerson. Those narratives are assuredly entertaining. But for something that looks similarly exploitative, this picture decides on a more nuanced approach in a generally successful attempt at open-ended social commentary.

The warden (Emile Meyer), for instance, is a no-nonsense man but far from a tyrannical monster; he has a grim view of the prison system, knowing they are not always able to offer the best rehabilitation. He constantly strives for discipline while also harboring a certain level of sympathy for those deserving of it. He is a first-hand witness to the short-sighted effects of negligence in our justice system.

It turns out that before the days of Johnny Cash, Folsom State Prison was used as the shooting location for this film. Siegel even had the ingenuity to cast real-life prisoners as extras. I’m not sure how the logistics worked out, but the film undoubtedly benefits surrounding the already believable tough guys like Neville Brand and hulking Leo Gordon with a host of others.

The usual suspects include a skulking Alvy Moore (pre-Green Acres) and “The Colonel” who is the most learned of the inmates and helps to give them some credibility. The lives of prison guards, including Whit Bissell and Paul Frees, reflect how close the jailers get to their charges. That’s a dangerous arena and especially with the guy’s in solitary.

Without this overcrowded, undermanned system, there would be no Riot in Cell Block 11. As it is, four guards are easily overpowered and held hostage to be used as leverage against the authorities.  There’s a giddy jubilance to their trashing of the cell block that’s nearly comical, even as the stakes are far more harrowing. It proves far more than a game, with lives on either side of the wire at stake.

James V. Dunn (Brand) takes the lead, daring all others to join him and his band of cronies. Crazy Mike Carnie (Gordon) is the one who frightens everyone into line. But it is The Colonel (Robert Osterloh) who is called upon to organize their grievances to be presented. He provides a voice of reason and rationality we would be lacking otherwise.

The warden is put in an agonizing position, walking the tightrope between the prisoner demands and the outsiders coming in, including the pitiless commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen), going all the way up to the governor. Likewise, worried spouses call his office about their husbands’ well-being as journalists (including William Schallert) look to stir up the story around the riot.

At its cores is this ideological war of treating prisoners firmly but with inherent dignity and then caging them up with the most merciless of standards to keep them in line. To show clemenscy is seen as a sign of weakness.

Inside and outside the bars, you see people with grievances and problems like any person. It humanizes everyone, in a sense, going beyond mere exploitative drama. It somehow wears a fairly convincing cloak of authenticity while still remaining pulse-pounding stuff. Because I’ve seen prison riots captured on film before but to my knowledge, there’s never been anything so enveloping and tumultuous on all fronts.

Keeping with Wang’s agenda, the film does not pull any punches as it slinks back into the status quo. There is tragedy, there is victory, and finally, there is a feeling of powerlessness in the face of bureaucracy. It’s as if a man’s word stands for nothing. It’s as if this whole ordeal was entirely pointless.  The finale is as eye-opening as it is pessimistic. But movies have a license to do that. It makes them a lot more lifelike.

4/5 Stars

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

5632c-wonderfullife4Every time I go through the emotional, romantic, heart-warming and at times uncomfortable roller coaster that is It’s a Wonderful Life, something new always seems to stick out to me.

It is always impressive for a film of this length that so much is packed into it. Within minutes we are fully enveloped in this story, and every sequence gives further insight into these characters. There is hardly ever a wasted moment because there is significance in each scene. Pointing us to the nature of George Bailey.

Furthermore, it is easy to forget the darkness that this film submerges itself in because it reaches such a jubilant crescendo. However, this is a story that covers the years including The Great Depression and World War II. Its protagonist sinks into a state of wretchedness complete with angry outbursts, negative feelings, and drunkenness. George Bailey loses all hope and his perspective is so completely distorted. For all intent and purposes, his life looks like it’s over, and it takes a frightening alternate reality to shake him out of his disillusionment. Put in this framework, it makes sense why it was a commercial flop when you juxtapose it with the big winner that year The Best Years of Our Lives. They both deal with post-war reality, but with very different lenses.

That’s the benefit of hindsight and a new context since we do not usually see It’s a Wonderful Life as a gloomy post-war tale, but a more positive parable that is universal in its impact. The first part of this story feels a bit like a Job story of hardship, and the second act is reminiscent to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but that’s the simplest of observations. There is a lot more to be parsed through.

The romance of George and Mary is what many of us aspire to and it causes us to really empathize with their young love that weathers the good and bad breaks they receive. It’s the fairy tale love story we want, with the rock hard reality we are used to in our own lives. Some favorite moments in their life together would be the splash they make during the Charleston dance off, singing Buffalo Gals together, smooching on the telephone together, sharing a makeshift honeymoon together, and embracing after George gets his new perspective on life.

There are a fair number of close-ups utilized in this film, but they are usually used at crucial points in the narrative, and they tell us a great deal about both George and Mary.

The first key moment comes during a freeze frame of grown up George with hands outstretched giving us our first look at the man we will be following from there on out. The next big moment occurs when George learns that Potter will gain control and the Building and Loan will be disbanded if he leaves. He realizes in an instant that he must give up his plans. Then, he waits excitedly for Harry with Uncle Billy and it is a happy moment, but George learns his younger brother might have another job. The camera follows his worried face as he goes to follow his new sister-in-law. Never thinking of himself, he realizes that Harry has a chance for better things and that leaves George still working the Building and Loan.

After their tiff, the scene where George and Mary are talking on the phone with Sam Wainwright is a solidifying moment in their relationship. There are so many underlying emotions and unspoken feelings that they are having trouble figuring out and reconciling. And yet there is that violent epiphany when their eyes link. The tears and anger are quickly traded for passionate kisses reflecting the often complicated facts of romance.

One of the final close-ups that hits home occurs when the now non-existent George stumbles away from the front door of his mother, who now has no concept of him. There is sweat on his brow (maybe from the 90 degree summer heatwave) and desperate bewilderment in his eyes. This is the lowest point he could have imagined. His own mother does not know who he is. His wife has grown old and lonely in an existence of exile. Stewart’s face is so expressive and earnest suggesting that George knows just how important human companionship is. Humanity was made to be in fellowship with each other. Lack of money means very little in comparison to our friendships and family ties. This is essentially what George finally comprehends and what Clarence reminds him. George understandably lost sight of his wife and his children and his friends. They were a gift not to be taken lightly.

Aside from these close-ups, it is also evident that a great deal of  effort was put into creating this world from the characters and their back stories to the town itself which was constructed on the RKO lot. Everything from the building facades, to stray dogs, and snow make the drama more atmospheric. It’s one of those films that reveals the beauty of using real props inhabited by seemingly real people. That’s why I sometimes am disillusioned by CGI. Although it can allow us to create amazing spectacles, oftentimes it creates a world that feels altogether fake and alien. It’s not relatable and it lacks the humanity that makes up our existence each and every day. In other words, it has very little of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life so compelling to me.

Perhaps there are more impressive or greater films, but there are few with greater heart and there is something to be said for that.

5/5 Stars

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

This is not only a Christmas classic but a classic in any sense of the word. It is the best of Stewart and Capra adding up to one of the most heartwarming stories of all time.  This may exhibit Stewart is his everyman role once again, but it breaks away from Mr. Smith in many ways making it another uniquely great film. A film like this that makes you know and feel for characters so profoundly is certainly worth watching.

Starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed with a fantastic supporting cast,  the film tells the life story of George Bailey. We watch with the angel Clarence as he sees George’s life unfold. George saves his brother Harry as a boy and as a result, loses hearing in his ear. He works in the Bedford Falls drugstore and keeps the proprietor Mr. Gower from making a deadly mistake. Later on, he plans to travel the world and go to college so he can escape his hometown and do bigger and better things. But once more he sacrifices. One fateful day, he doesn’t know it yet, but he meets the love of his life Mary, and the same day his kindly father has a stroke. Soon after,  Harry goes off to college and George is left holding down the fort at their father’s old building and loan. He builds up all those around him with selfless kindness, while simultaneously standing up to the grumpy millionaire Mr. Potter. Eventually, he marries Mary and has children. First, during the Depression George gives up his honeymoon to keep the building and loan open. Then, during WWII while his brother and others become heroes, George stays in Bedford Falls because of his poor hearing. In this post-war period, the story picks up in the present.

Although, by unfortunate circumstances George Bailey finds himself contemplating suicide after the absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000. That’s when Clarence comes into his life to show George just how important he really is. George sees a world where Harry is dead, Mr. Gower is a disgrace, Martini does not own the bar, his mother has no sons, Uncle Billy is insane, Violet is disgraced, Bert and Ernie do not know him, Mary is an old maid, and Mr. Potter has monopolized Bedford Falls.

Once he gets his life back George finds immediate joy and gains so much because of his friends and family. He runs through the streets of Bedford Falls yelling out “Merry Christmas,” because he is simply grateful to live again. Miraculously, the whole town rallies around him, and George reaps the reward for all he has sowed over the years. Clarence is finally awarded his wings and George Bailey is the richest man in town. There is nothing much to do after this film but simply be happy and sing “Auld Lang Syne.” It is a Wonderful film in many ways, with a wonderful cast, and a wonderful message. It has some of the greatest character development of any film ever because you do not simply become attached to one man but an entire community. That’s what makes the scene where Uncle Billy loses the money one of the most difficult for me to watch. Each and every time I’m so attached to these people. Even if I already know the resolution, I cannot bear for anything bad to happen to them. In fact, it is interesting to focus on just one of the supporting characters and see how they are affected by the life of George Bailey. It makes me ask myself if I were to die tomorrow would anyone care? We know in the case of George they certainly would.

I am further reminded of the phrase that is written on the wall of the building and loan, “You can only take with you, that which you give away.” This is what George Bailey did, and I believe it is something that each and every one of us should be mindful of. He is a great character not only because James Stewart played him genuinely and with such magnetism and heart, but because he was such a sacrificial figure. True, this is a sentimental film given the title and the director, but it is paramount to realize the progression this film follows. George must sink into the depths of his despair and disillusionment before he can truly realize that It’s a Wonderful Life. I would challenge you the next time you watch this film, to not simply acknowledge it as perennial Christmas fare, but look a bit deeper because there is so much more here. As always, Attaboy Clarence! You did it again.

5/5 Stars