new releases from The Criterion Collection spotlight low-budget filmmaking in
the 1950s—American and European—and couldn’t be more stylistically and
thematically diverse. And yet, there is a personal stamp on the pictures that
is very similar. Both films also tackle social problems with brutal frankness
and feature anti-heroes as protagonists.
Riot in Cell Block
produced by longtime Hollywood independent producer Walter Wanger (he was also responsible
for two earlier Criterion releases, Stagecoach
and Foreign Correspondent) as a
hard-hitting, gritty, realistic picture depicting the inequities and
maltreatment prisoners receive in American prisons. Wanger had a personal
reason to make a film like that. He had barely missed spending some time in
one. He’d caught his wife with another man, so Wanger shot the guy, seriously wounding him. A temporary insanity defense got him only four months at an “honor farm,” which
was hardly the same as the federal penitentiary, but he was nonetheless
inspired to tell the world how things really were. Enter Don Siegel, a macho, unconventional
craftsman who would later make such classics as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry. Since the picture was going to be made in Folsom State Prison and featuring real inmates as extras, Wanger needed
something of a tough guy to helm the thing. Siegel was his man.
in 1954 and starring a bunch of B-movie character actors as leads (Neville
Brand, Emile Meyer, Leo Gordon, and others), Riot concerns a group of irate inmates that take over their block
and hold guards as hostages. Their demands are humane ones, and yet the
governor and the movie’s “bad guy,” the commissioner, are against giving the
cons anything and will use deadly force to stop the riot—even if it means
sacrificing the hostages. Meyer, as the prison warden, delivers a surprisingly
sympathetic performance as he sides with the convicts but still attempts to do
his job (Meyer would later appear in a small role as a priest in Stanley
Kubrick’s Paths of Glory). Brand and
Gordon (who apparently really was a scary guy on the set) run the show—and
there’s no shortage of beatings, arson, vandalism, and attempted murder (the
film was banned in the U.K. on its initial release). Interestingly, the
audience ends up rooting for the inmates, who normally should be the villains.
particularly striking is Siegel’s use of location. As in a documentary, the use
of the Folsom gives audiences a view of what it’s really like on the inside (at
the time). It’s the real thing. Siegel manages to illustrate the claustrophobic
desperation of the environment with great skill. But what’s even more profound
is that the depiction of the prison population in 1954 is very different from what
we envision the inhabitants of a prison might be today. For one thing, the
whites outnumber the blacks in Riot.
Was that realistic in 1954? It must have been, since all the extras in the
picture were indeed inmates. The place also doesn’t seem as frightening as the
gang-ridden institutions of the present. Nevertheless, Riot is honest and hard-hitting, another entry in a long line of
“social problem films” that proliferated after World War II (The Lost Weekend, Gentleman’s Agreement, All
the King’s Men, The Snake Pit,
new 2K digital restoration looks terrific. Since earlier home video versions in
the U.S. were either on VHS or bootleg DVDs, the new dual format release is a
welcome one. Film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein provides audio commentary. The
extras are a bit disappointing, though. Two audio pieces feature Siegel’s son,
Kristoffer Tabori, reading passages from his father’s autobiography and Stuart
Kaminsky’s book on the director. These are fine if one doesn’t mind being read
to for a half-hour. The other extra is all-audio as well—an excerpt from a 1953
NBC radio documentary series called The
Challenge of Our Prisons. The usual thick booklet contains an essay by
critic Chris Fujiwara, a 1954 article by Wanger, and a 1974 tribute to Siegel
by Sam Peckinpah.
Truffaut’s first feature film, The 400
Blows, released in 1959, was one of the opening salvos of the French New
Wave. Drawing on his own childhood experiences, Truffaut introduces us to his
alter-ego, Antoine Doinel, played beautifully by fourteen-year-old Jean-Pierre
Leaud, who would star as the same character in four more films, spanning two
decades—hence, we see Antoine grow up and enter adulthood before our eyes (see
Criterion’s box set The Adventures of
Antoine Doinel for the complete series).
debut Doinel chapter is the most serious of the saga—the rest are, by and
large, comedies. The 400 Blows paints
a grim portrait of a young boy who is misunderstood by his parents and
teachers, and is hence labeled a problem teen. Truffaut was particularly good
at working with children and he would continue to do so throughout his career.
The story follows Antoine’s troublesome day-to-day life until he is unfairly
expelled from school and sent to a juvenile facility. It sounds dreary, but
Truffaut manages to keep the film riveting from start to finish, and the final
freeze frame is one of cinema’s most iconic images.
seminal art film is a must-have in any serious collector’s library. With
Godard’s Breathless (reviewed here
previously), The 400 Blows exhibits
quintessential traits of the New Wave—low budget financing, hand-held cameras,
improvised action, and radical editing. It took neo-realism and made it arty.
Its legacy is without question, for it remains Truffaut’s most financially
successful picture in his native country.
has released the title a few times. The first one went out of print and became
an expensive collector’s item on eBay until the company retrieved the rights
again and re-issued a DVD of the film alone, as well as the box set of the
complete Doinel pictures. Then there was the bargain-priced “Art House
Essentials” edition. Now, a dual Blu-ray and DVD, the contents of which match
the previous release, with the same supplements (two audio commentaries,
audition footage of the actors, newsreel footage from Cannes, and two vintage
Truffaut interviews). The only difference is the magnificent restored
high-definition digital film transfer. The
400 Blows never looked so good. What is disappointing, though, is that the
second Doinel film, a thirty-minute short entitled Antoine and Colette, was not included as a supplement. It’s on the 400 Blows DVD disc that’s in the Doinel
box set. Why couldn’t it have been a Blu-ray special feature? Or is an Antoine
Doinel Blu-ray box set in the works?