[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
Kirk Douglas becomes yet another star to learn he ought to stay in front of the camera. His directorial debut lacks style, wit, pace, visual distinction, common sense—lacks even naïveté, which might have proved at least modestly winning. Indeed, the picture serves up some very ugly doses of casual death-dealing by a motley crew of constantly guffawing pirates who, with peglegged Douglas in the lead, scramble around Alta California in pursuit of treasure and G-rated good times. The suburban audience I saw Scalawag with had come mostly for the second-run cofeature, Charlotte’s Web, to judge by remarks overheard, but they responded to Douglas’s shambling efforts with that programmed laughter they learn from canned tracks on TV. As a performer, Douglas has usually fared best as some kind of scoundrel (his best performance, Lonely Are the Brave, is a conspicuous exception), especially such early triumphs as the malevolent, latently homosexual gangster in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) and the Machiavellian producer in Minnelli’s TheBad and the Beautiful (1952), as Howard Hawks observed in connection with TheBigSky (also ’52), when he tries to sell himself as a nice guy he is less than convincing. Scalawag asks us to delight in a nice scoundrel, but director Douglas leaves actor Douglas stranded. Read More “Review: Scalawag”
It may not have been obvious at the time but Riot in Cell Block 11 (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD) was a perfect match of film and filmmaker. Don Siegel later made a name for himself with his gritty Clint Eastwood collaborations (not to mention is brilliant Invasion of the Body Snatchers) but was just a promising journeyman director when he embarked on this low-budget 1954 film, a project initiated by producer Walter Wanger after he served a short sentence for assault with a deadly weapon (he shot a man that he thought was sleeping with his wife, Joan Bennett). Riot gave Siegel a situation where violence was a defining element of the world and the people in it, a power always threatening to blow up and burn out control, and he used it to create a powder-keg of thriller with a message underneath the drama.
It begins with a newsreel-like prologue to establish its ripped-from-the-headlines bonafides—”Where will the next riot occur?” teases the narrator after showing us a succession of protests in prisons across the country—and then jumps into the fictional story of a carefully-planned riot in the punishment block of an overcrowded prison. (Phil Karlson used the same structure a year later for an even more explosive The Phenix City Story.) Neville Brand, a real-life war hero who made a career playing Hollywood villains thanks to his tough manner and scuffed-up face, is the ringleader of this protest, a convicted killer who has no agenda but to call attention to prison conditions. His fellow inmates are not so committed to his restraint, however, and the prison guard hostages are in constant danger of retribution from vindictive prisoners, especially Leo Gordon as a sociopath who has no interest in curbing his impulses. The warden (Emile Meyer) is not only sympathetic to their demands, he’s already complained to the state about the prison overcrowding and understaffing, lack of education and training programs for the inmates, and insufficient training for the guards, but the state politics demand a policy of no negotiations with rioters, which just raises the stakes and the temperature of the stand-off.
Siegel helms this film with both a hard-edged portrait of the violence and desperation of the situation and an intelligent engagement with the issues. Most of these guys have nothing to lose. Others are so angry that they riot in sympathy, whether it helps or not (in this film, it’s both). Brand holds the center as a both, a guy ready to follow through on his threats if necessary but restrained and far-sighted enough to hope it doesn’t come to that. He’s fighting the power on both sides: holding back what is close to a paramilitary response from the outside while trying to keep the volatile chemistry inside from combusting. He’s sympathetic to the prisoners without whitewashing their crimes or their violent nature. Much of the film was shot on location at Folsom Prison with guards and prisoners serving as extras and advisers, which gives the film added authenticity, but it’s Siegel’s direction that really lights the fuse. And Siegel is aware of the tension between social message and violent spectacle; he, like Brand’s character, realizes that it takes a big story to get people to pay attention to the issues. Siegel, however, is more interested in the personalities and the conflicts and the lengths to which both sides will go in this war.
It’s mastered from a new 2K digital restoration in Academy Ratio (1.37:1), which has raised some debate; in some shots the headroom is distracting and the film looks like it should be masked to 1.66:1 widescreen, in others it looks well balanced and composed. Clearly the film was protected for both aspect ratios, but it’s not clear which the director’s preferred or intended format was. Features commentary by film scholar Matthew H. Berstein, audio excerpts from the director’s autobiography “A Siegel Film” and Stuart Kaminsky’s 1974 book “Don Siegel: Director,” both read by Siegel’s son Kristoffer Tabori, and excerpts from the 1953 NBC radio documentary series “The Challenge of Our Prisons,” plus a fold-out booklet with an essay by Chris Fujiwara.
“Kansas City Confidential” (HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest)
The first of three collaborations between Phil Karlson, a director who graduated from B-movies with a strong storytelling punch and a tough, two-fisted sensibility, and John Payne, a former light romantic lead and bland song-and-dance man of Fox musicals, was a career changer for both of them. Payne was already reinventing himself as a hard, taciturn lead in the westerns and action films when he connected up with Karlson and (according to the director) they came up with the story: “he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form.”
Kansas City Confidential opens on Preston Foster, a mystery man with a stopwatch and a checklist casing a bankfront, piecing together his plan and his crew, a real rogues gallery of desperate thugs all but blackmailed by this mystery man in a mask into filling out his strike force. The robbery is executed with clockwork timing and Karlson directs the scene with terse efficiency, snappy momentum and crack timing. It’s also where we get our first real look at delivery man Joe (Payne), the hard-luck working class guy flipped off by fate when the armored car heist uses his florist deliveries as cover and leaves him to take the fall: a patsy to give them camouflage and the cops a distraction as they make their getaway. He’s a decorated soldier and survivor, a war hero who took the hard knocks that came his way and rolled with the punches, but is almost knocked down for the count with this sucker punch. His name is smeared in the press and his livelihood stolen by suspicion, but he’s resourceful, resilient and unflinching when it comes to taking the hit. He follows his only lead out of the states and into a sleepy little Mexican vacation spot where a payoff already complicated by double-dealing and double crosses gets a new player.
The hoods in this film are a triumvirate of essential B-movie thugs with attitude and an edge of psychosis: a beady-eyed Neville Brand, a smiling cobra of a Lee Van Cleef and a skinny, sweaty Jack Elam, who later played his cock-eyed looks for shaggy humor but here works his gargoyle face for underworld shiftiness. They give the film a shot of raw menace, a trio of thugs who are quick with a gun and slow to trust anyone and would just as soon solve a problem with a bullet. Foster, never the most dynamic of screen professionals, doesn’t exactly radiate authority as a criminal mastermind but part of the film’s fun is the play of false identities and double lives and Foster’s ex-cop with a grudge is all about appearing innocent while pulling the strings behind the scenes. His revenge on his forced retirement is a doozy that, if all goes to plan, will leave both rich and a hero.