RiotCell11It 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 powderkeg 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 advisors, 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.

MasterHouseMaster of the House (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD) couldn’t more different. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, this 1925 silent domestic drama is set in a middle-class household where Viktor (Johannes Meyer), a tyrant of a husband and father, drives his hard-working wife Ida (Astrid Holm) to a near-breakdown with his constant bullying and criticisms. When she is spirited away by her mother to recover, his former nanny, a wily old woman played with worldly spunk by Mathilde Nielsen, takes charge in the house to teach him a lesson. The film takes place almost entirely in the family apartment, which Dreyer painstakingly constructed to match the plain simplicity of real-life homes, and he observes the household routine with the patient care of a documentarian and the delicacy of a painter. When Ida leaves, the drama gives way to a low-key domestic comedy driven by the nanny, who punctures Viktor’s arrogance and sense of entitlement.

Dreyer is slow to show his sympathy for Viktor, only later explaining how Viktor lost his business (and, we assume, his self-esteem with it), but ultimately shows a compassion for everyone and makes good on the comments of the first act, which insist that at heart these two are still in love. By the end of the film, we see that love reignited. It’s a handsome drama directed with elegance and care, a lovely portrait of middle-class life in Denmark during the depression of the 1920s with an undercurrent of comedy and a visual control that slowly brings us into the lives of these characters with simple but evocative images.

Blu-ray+DVD Combo and DVD only editions in a new digital restoration with a piano score by Gillian Anderson, plus a visual essay and an interview with a Dreyer historian, and an accompanying booklet.

IlSorpassoIl Sorpasso (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD) is a largely forgotten Italian classic of the early 1960s, perhaps because it arrived in the midst of an embarrassment of riches of Italian cinema. In fact, it’s known today in part thanks to a recent big screen revival. This disc comes out of that restoration and re-release. Dino Risi’s lively 1962 road movie is a lovely character piece with an odd couple friendship and a delightful portrait of Italian social life in the bistros and nightclubs and beaches outside of the city culture. Vittorio Gassman is Bruno, the exuberant free spirit in a convertible, and Jean-Louis Trintignant is Roberto, a reserved, shy law student pulled coaxed away from his studies for a wild ride.

It’s a friendship sprung from a chance meeting and developed through the sheer power of Bruno’s charm and personality: he’s a prankster, womanizer, gourmand, hustler, and speed demon, leaping on impulse and spending freely and generously (especially when he’s borrowing from others). Roberto, by contrast, is tightly wound and nervous as the older, worldly Bruno drags him into unfamiliar situations, watching in distress and envy as Bruno charms, flirts, jokes, and dominates every crowd with the power of his personality, and picking up just a little of the elder’s confidence along the way. And then the film take an expected detour into Bruno’s past: visiting his ex-wife and a neglected daughter (Catherine Spaak), who is growing up fast and savvy in the ways of the world, and seeing Bruno lose his confidence in the face of his past failure. There’s not much narrative to the episodic journey but there is plenty of character and personality, a rich portrait at Italy as rest and play, and a fascinating relationship between two men with nothing in common and no reason to remain together but for Bruno’s affection for the nervous Roberto and his determination to win over the suspicious young man.

In Italian with English subtitles. The three-disc Blu-ray+DVD Combo edition is mastered from a beautiful 2K digital restoration (it looks flawless!) and features new interviews with screenwriter Ettore Scola and film scholar Rémi Fournier Lanzoni, an archival interview with director Dino Risi from 2004, an introduction by actor Jean-Louis Trintignant with Marie-Christine Barrault from a 1983 French TV broadcast of the film, the 2006 documentary A Beautiful Vacation on director Risi, and excerpts from a 2012 documentary with rare on-set color footage, plus a booklet with essays by critics Phillip Lopate and Antonio Monda.

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