“A protest, a riot, I don't care what you call it,” says Red (Gene Hackman), the mastermind of an audacious plan to break out of an Arizona prison in the 1969 release Riot, produced by William Castle, directed by Buzz Kulik (Brian's Song), and adapted by James Poe (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) from Frank Elli's novel. [Note: Spoilers ahead.]
Red and a small crew of fellow criminals – an ad hoc and suitably diverse bunch from the solitary confinement wing, including wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time protagonist Cully Briston (Jim Brown) – instigate an uprising among the other inmates, hoping to distract the authorities with their seemingly serious demands while they plot to sneak out through a tunnel under the prison auditorium.
This line seems to betray a political weariness – if not cynicism – at the heart of Riot, smudging the line between social conflict and barbarism. And beneath its efficient, pleasantly generic surface bubbles that era's anxieties over social breakdown, ethnic suspicion, and revolutionary bluster.
While police and armed guards circle the perimeter, life inside becomes more and more chaotic, with the inmates taking advantage of their newfound liberty to drown themselves in fermented-raisin wine and settle scores with snitches. Cully tries to keep the situation in the prison at a simmer, fearing a boiling-over that would threaten his escape. But the real threat to the plan comes not from the brutish inmates, but from Red who, under the influence of an idealistic prison psychologist, starts to believe his own liberatory hype.
In a bid for gritty realism, Riot was shot on location in the Arizona State Penitentiary. Kulik does the tricky but underappreciated work of condensing its various cells, offices, hallways and common areas into a legible stage for the action, although Robert B. Hauser's cinematography does give the indoor scenes a bit of an unfortunate TV-like sheen – I was reminded of the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker Police Squad! series, which parodied this type of look to fairly devastating effect. (Outdoor scenes, however, fare much better, with the almost white light of the southwestern sun bouncing off the desert in a way that gives a really visceral sense of oppressive heat.)
The “guests” of that institution serve as extras as well, bringing a hoped-for touch of authenticity to the proceedings, although it's worth noting that the un-fakable physiognomy of Actual Criminals makes a marked contrast with the Hollywood pros filling out the lead roles. Even Gene Hackman's squinty, unconventional handsomeness stands out a bit among the crowds of men looking twice as old as they probably are.
Partly for these reasons, Riot works best when it backs off from its stars and focuses on the background elements; it shouldn't come as a surprise that for a film that takes social disintegration as its subject, the scenes of mass prisoner unrest are its most deeply felt. A rare memorable image captures the prisoners' resettlement of a cell block – doors open, personal affects strewn about and men resting in the nooks and crannies of the hallway like moss. Also good is a brief scene of a rock n' roll group practicing in the auditorium, weirdly anticipating the drummer in the woods in Jean-luc Godard's Weekend (released in the U.S. well after Riot's production would've ended).
Little of this has any direct impact on the central plot, however, which is, frankly, less interesting for it. Once Cully talks Red down from his revolutionary delusions, the group makes a break for it, predictably botching the job. In Riot's final scene, a character scales the wall by himself and stalks off into the night, escaping the guards, the riot police, the prisoners and his co-conspirators. A film from Hollywood's classic decades would probably have tried to resolve the tension between individual autonomy and responsibility for public order; but Riot comes to us from a different age, one exhausted with social conflict.
Not a few films from that period end up with the protagonist simply fleeing from the messiness of the modern world. If you like, you could say that this was one sign (of many) of the general rightward drift in American society that was underway at the time (and continues), albeit a less noxious one than, say, Dirty Harry or Death Wish.
On the other hand, those at least have a unified point of view, and aren't afraid to engage with it on an emotional and stylistic level, which is to say: they're better movies. Riot is a fine record of its time, a decently well-done example of its genre, but one that doesn't nearly live up to its great title – I guess it really doesn't matter what you call it.
© Dan Erdman
RIOT (1969). Dir.: Buzz Kulik. Cast: Jim Brown, Gene Hackman, Mike Kellin, Gerald S. O'Loughlin, Clifford David, Ben Carruthers, Frank Eyman. Scr.: James Poe; from Frank Elli's novel.