Storm the tower, torch the cage: "Well, gentlemen, thatís one way of getting sprung." War is the lynchpin of the furioso allegory, ingrown fascism suffuses the vertical structure of an uniformed sadist looking down on a captive lumpen-proletariat. "One big human bomb" describes Jules Dassinís penitentiary, inmates go from crowded cells to a Dantean pit endlessly excavated, the purgatory within the purgatory. At the top are the craven warden (Roman Bohnen) and the vicious security chief (Hume Cronyn) angling for a promotion, the humanistic physician (Art Smith) has long become a mordant voice in a soused haze. Capo (Charles Bickford), ex-soldier (Howard Duff), gambler (John Hoyt), and embezzler (Whit Bissell) populate the behind-bars microcosm, the convict leader (Burt Lancaster) steps out of solitary and builds toward the uprising. (The breakout is planned with chess pieces as a battleground memory.) "I was just thinking, an insurance company could go flat broke in this prison." Sinew against concrete, not the government of rehabilitation but the tyranny of punishment. Collaborationism inside is a major crime, complete with its own ceremonial retribution: one stoolie is pushed by blowtorches down the jaws of a metal press, another is tied to a mining cart and ridden screaming into the guards' bullets. The pin-up poster on the wall is everyone's feminine altar, she's the gamine on the wheelchair (Ann Blyth), the housewife in the fur coat (Ella Raines), the casino double-crosser (Anita Colby) and the Italian villager (Yvonne De Carlo), glances of the outside world. Kubrick's gladiators and Peckinpah's desperados alike are anticipated in a riot culminating in an image from Overthrow of the Titans, though not even Molotov cocktails can crack the grid. (The bewildered closing words belong to the fallen doctor, just another prisoner of the system.) Siegel (Riot in Cell Block 11) and Losey (The Criminal) expand Dassin's composition, and then there's Lancaster de novo in Birdman of Alcatraz. Cinematography by William Daniels. With Sam Levene, Jeff Corey, Jack Overman, Sir Lancelot, Vince Barnett, Richard Gaines, and Jay C. Flippen. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce