RIOT (1969)
Director: Buzz Kulik
Olive Films

Jim Brown, a young Gene Hackman, and the real staff and inmates of the Arizona State Prison are caught up in a RIOT, a Paramount vault title brought to DVD by Olive Films.

Cully Briston (NFL player Jim Brown, THE DIRTY DOZEN) is serving a five year sentence. He has become the target of abuse by racist guard Grossman (Gerald S. O’Loughlin, IN COLD BLOOD) for talking back (and the odd bit of contraband). With the warden (real warden Frank E. Eyman) away, Fisk (Jerry Thompson) is inclined to let Briston off with a warning, but Grossman insists that Briston be put in the isolation block. Ignoring the mysterious fact that none of the guards inside have come to unlock the door, Grossman gets the key and escorts Briston inside only to be ambushed by the inmates, lead by Gene Hackman’s Red Fraker, who have taken charge of the block. Freed from the block, they take hostages and plan to scale the walls and firebomb the towers. Unfortunately, Briston informs them that their supplies were discovered and removed. Since he’s up for parole, Briston wants no part of a riot, so he tries to smooth things between Fraker and his men, the hostages, and the other blocks who have formed their own groups (what he’s really doing is stalling to commit to any action that might end badly for him). One of the guards is seriously ill and Briston knows his death or the deaths of any of the other hostages will mean more trouble for them. Fraker decides to trick the media and the government into thinking that they are having a protest (“an orderly demonstration in preparation for negotiation”) in order to buy time to plan an alternate escape. They fool the prison psychologist into believing that they really want reform and have him busy revising their list of grievances (they’ve actually got some legitimate ones like the warden gassing them regularly). Sharpshooters line the wall outside, so the men are tunneling through ninety feet of foundation and earth underneath. When the warden comes back and threatens violent repercussions, Briston realizes he must join in on and escalate the escape plans (especially when the warden believes that Briston is the real mover and shaker behind Fraker).

Based on the novel “The Riot” by Frank Elli and adapted by James Poe (who also adapted CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, and was married to Barbara Steele during this period), RIOT begins nicely with a montage of prison life set to the song “100 Years” by Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers (lyrics by Robert Wells and music by Christopher Komeda), and surprises us with the takeover of the isolation block underway when Grossman and Briston walk into it unknowingly (actually, it’s a far-fetched ruse that seems to depend on the predictability of the behavior of Grossman and his ability to go over Fisk’s head). Unfortunately, after the quick setup, things slow down considerably. Fraker and the others have taken over the isolation block without the sort of intricate planning one looks forward to in prison escape movies. They continually have to come up with another plan (so many times, that you’ll lose track). Dialogue scenes are well shot, but do not really lead anywhere; they sometimes feel like padding between diversions such as Briston’s dream of freedom (which involves bikini-clad girls), some violent interjections of Ben Caruthers’ (SHADOWS) unhinged Native American (that’s “crazy Indian” in non-PC), a drag show and a near encounter with the prison movie sympathetic homosexual character Mary (Clifford David, THE EXORCIST III). The drama gains very little from being shot in authentic prison locations. The authentic prison locations meld so seamlessly with the sets, that I would have believed it was all shot on sets and backdrops with a higher budget had the opening credits not emphasized that the locations and supporting cast were authentic. Briston, in stalling from committing to any course of action that might end badly for him (as opposed to thinking on his feet), makes him a somewhat passive character observing the behavior of the other inmates in a disconnected fashion. When the warden returns, his more decisive manipulation of Fraker doesn’t really ratchet up the tension. The finale is violent but rushed and unsatisfying, with the final bit involving Hackman and Brown particularly unsatisfying. RIOT is ultimately more interesting for the collected talent in front of and behind the camera, than as a prison movie.

RIOT was one of handful of features directed by Buzz Kulik (BRIAN’S SONG) whose roughly 40-year directorial career included several TV movies, episodes of GUNSMOKE, THE NAKED CITY and THE TWILIGHT ZONE as well as the mini-series version of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY with Natalie Wood. His last feature credit was the Steve McQueen film THE HUNTER (1980), but he continued working in television until the early 1990s. Brown’s stoic lead performance works for the first part of the film, but adds to the listless feeling of the rest of the film. Hackman is energetic throughout, but doesn’t give a particularly disciplined performance (nor does he ham it up enough to make things entertaining). Horror fans will recognize the late Mike Kellin from SLEEPAWAY CAMP and JUST BEFORE DAWN (although he was also in other prison movies like TERROR AT ALCATRAZ and MIDNIGHT EXPRESS). Composer Christopher Komeda, who also scored Castle’s production of ROSEMARY’S BABY (and a few other Polanski titles including THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS), gets experimental with some electronic instruments. Cinematographer Robert Hauser (THE ODD COUPLE) manages several striking compositions, making nice use of the foreground and background (although only 1.85:1, the framing probably would have been diminished cropped to full frame).

Olive Films presents this Paramount title in a progressive, anamorphic widescreen transfer that is clean but appropriately grainy (the bitrate edges the feature just barely onto a second layer, but seems more than sufficient). The colors are subdued but strong (the saturated red of the title really stands out, as well as a more violent burst of red late in the film) and the mono audio is also impressive (including the theme song). There are no extras, and the motion main menu looks a bit cheap. The front cover also looks a bit Alpha Video, but that may be the fault of the original poster art utilized, but it is still a more-than-satisfactory rendering of one of the many titles that Paramount has bothered with themselves. Let’s hope that Olive Films picks up some more Paramount back catalogue titles. (Eric Contenas)