Riot in Cell Block 11 – a 1954 prison noir film. This is a gritty film, and I don’t mean the bootleg transfer quality. It was filmed in Folsom prison, using inmate and guard extras; the director and Leo Gordon had both served time (the former for less than a year and the latter for five); and! Sam Pekinpah (the guy Charlton Heston once threatened with a saber) served as a second-unit director; Pekinpah’s father was apparently a hangin’ judge himself. So there is a bit more heft and authenticity to this than you’d get with a more polished production.
The film is pretty non-cliche; while there initially is an unjustly-imprisoned man (well then, how’d he end up in Solitary with the X on his door?) desperately worried about news from his sick little girl, this thread gets dropped immediately.
On the prisoners’ side, the three main protagonists are Dunn, played by Neville Brand (also seen in Raw Edge, The Tin Star, The Lonely Man, and oh you’re kidding me. Flame of Araby? Okay, maybe I ought to lay off the 1950s movies.) Brand has an interestingly thuggish face and, in this movie, an interestingly intelligent character. He’s a hard case who has spent most of his adult life behind bars, the leader and main driving force of the revolt. With him as second in command and muscle is Leo Gordon as Crazy Mike Carnie. Why Crazy? Well, because he’s a psychotic asshole, that’s why. The third guy is Robert (?) Osterloh as The Colonel, who is in prison because he Made A Mistake, is about to go up for parole, but helps with the nonviolent part of the riot anyway–because it’s necessary and right.
The prisoners’ demands are quite simple: they want better food, they want decent quarters, they want
habitat enrichment something to freaking do with their time and an end to the brutal treatment they’ve been routinely subjected to. Not an unreasonable list, except for the threats and hostages. The Warden, played by somebody who probably wasn’t in any Westerns and I’m not looking him up on IMDB, too, has been making these same points to the Governor and legislature for fifteen years. So, while remaining consummately professional, he’s also sympathetic.
Unfortunately, the Governor is a politician (it’s probably an election year, too) and the legislature is made up of politicians and bureaucrats. They don’t want the problem solved–just to make it go away. They want to call in the State Police. They want to start shooting. They want to try blowing a hole in the barracks. They don’t want to give in, even to basic humanitarian demands.
And then when Dunn gets temporarily taken out in an internal power struggle AKA a lead pipe and Crazy Mike is suddenly in charge of the riot it starts to really look like those hostages aren’t going to make it…
Rated: Four stabbed bureaucrats out of five.
The Texas Rangers – A 1936 western with a young Fred MacMurray. It’s pretty lightweight.
True Confession – 1937. A still quite young Fred MacMurray is Ken, a highly ethical young attorney with an honest streak. And subsequently, no clients. And also a stupid mustache. Carole Lombard is his wife Helen, an aspiring writer with a compulsive habit of lying…although to be fair, most of her lies are motivated by the fact that they, a single-income family, have no income because Ken won’t take cases from guilty clients. Oh, and won’t let her get a job of her own because that would be admitting (his) failure.
So Helen really has no other alternative than take one behind his back, and it’s a sweet deal: fifty dollars a week for a three-hour day secretary job.
Yeah, it’s too good to be true. Helen is forced to flee her employer’s advances before they even start on the morning’s correspondence. But then! When Helen returns that afternoon to retrieve her hat, coat, and purse, she and girl friend get nabbed by the police: the old wolf’s been murdered.
And no one, especially her husband, is going to believe her if she tells the truth…
(And then the real culprit is actually quite annoyed that his perfect crime was stolen from him).
((He’s a liar, too.))
This is a pretty ridiculous premise and movie. It’s made a lot better by Helen’s (slightly) more sensible friend–who lampshades the hell out of everything, groans at Helen’s whoppers, and at each step points out the logical course of action. And gets nowhere, because there would then be no hilarity ensuing if people just did the logical, sensible thing.
Lombard is lovely and only slightly over the top. MacMurray, as her frustrated, honorable (and slightly twerpy) husband is hilarious. And also looks real fine in them tight swim trunks.
Rated: This is a romantic comedy, so we’ll go easy on it. Nine dictaphones out of ten.
Broken Lance – 1954. It’s usually science fiction that steals from other genres; but this movie actually reminded me of Jack Vance’s The Grey Prince: a protagonist returns home from exile, to find that the patriarch has died and the family is disunited–and there is trouble on the range.
Of course, there are decided differences: Old Man Devereaux (Spencer Tracy) is significantly nastier than Uther Madduc, an unyielding and almighty figure whose lack of time and empathy for his sons results in his own sons stealing from his ranch and abandoning him when he most needs them. Madduc, on the other hand, while originally seen as similarly domineering and unreasonable, is posthumously revealed to be more complex and and clear-sighted than many of the other characters–able, when the time comes, to take a grand joke and laugh at it.
Now, this isn’t to say that Devereax is a complete tool; he’s not. He loves his wife; she obeys him. He cares for his sons–while they obey him. But it’s his need for control, the need to dictate terms to the world, that dooms the family. The world is bigger than one man–and nowadays, the West ain’t all that wild and the bad guys have lawyers.
And then there are his sons. There are four of them, but mostly they are Richard Widmark, as the eldest, blondest, and, after long years of taking orders and getting nothing back other a hired hand’s wages, the most resentful; and then Robert Wagner, as the youngest and most stable, our hero, who spent three years in jail after taking the fall for his father. He wants those three years back. His brothers want him out of their hair. He wants his life back. His brothers don’t. On such things hinges the rest of the A-plot.
One of the most redeeming parts of both Madduc and Devereaux’s characters is provided by their interactions with The Injuns: the Uldra in Grey Prince, the Comanche in Broken Lance. Madduc’s best friend, and the one who understands him best (because they’re both hard-bitten old bastards who follow the Old Traditions…just in different ways) is an Uldra. A little distance, a little respect, and a lot of keeping to your own side of the fence, the moral goes, goes a long way towards making people like each other. Devereaux himself married into the tribe (and it’s mentioned that he was considered no catch!), and maintains close ties with them still. People, after all, are people, and being able to out-fight or out-shout someone doesn’t really change with their skin color. Katy Jurado is the saintly mother and step-mother, giving a subtle and natural performance in a sympathetic and moving role.
Rated: three and a half broken lances out of five.