The Defiant Ones (1958)
The Defiant Ones (1958)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 36 min.

Release Date: September 27th, 1958 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Stanley Kramer Actors: Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, Theodore Bikel, Charles McGraw, Lon Chaney, King Donovan, Claude Akins, Whit Bissell, Cara Williams

 


 

J

ohn “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) are two prisoners, chained together in the back of a transportation truck. When Noah croons loudly during the ride, and Joker dishes out racial slurs, they engage in a tussle that distracts the driver, resulting in a sideswiped vehicle that careens off a cliff. As policemen investigate the aftermath, it’s determined that only two convicts have escaped: Noah and Joker.

“How come they chained a white man to a black?” “The warden’s got a sense of humor.” Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel, giving a remarkably idiosyncratic performance) takes charge, but isn’t too concerned about apprehending the escapees; after all, with their obvious dislike of one another, they’ll probably wind up dead before they can hobble five miles. Despite a considerable head start – with the hordes of state troopers, roadblocks, and bloodhounds (and dobermans) employed to catch the runners – Joker and Noah will have to tolerate teamwork for their freedom … or die together in the process.

“The Defiant Ones” is predominantly an adventure piece, though it’s impossible to extricate the racial commentary at work, helmed by the provocative Stanley Kramer (who would go on to direct “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” among many other thought-provoking productions). Poitier and Curtis are superb here, routinely vocalizing the various shades of ignorance and intolerance that fuel the racism of the time period. In between near-misses and hair-raising gambits, the duo continues to trade barbs and negotiate their prejudices, giving the harrowing scenarios a social gravity that would otherwise be absent.

The main message of the film may be heavy-handed at times, but it’s nevertheless thoroughly engaging. Even though the conversations lean toward racial injustices, the character development benefits heartily. Joker and Noah aren’t the hardened criminals from the start; they’re nuanced, sympathetic personas, opting for survival over conformity – with incarceration as the result. And there are other themes brewing too; from a trek through a swamp to a tumble into a clay pit (a fantastic set), the film examines the notions of independence versus collaboration; the inability of humans to effectively communicate with each other – like multitudes of different insect species making inscrutable noises; unfortunate upbringings, usually entwined with poverty; the inevitable human condition of solitude; and the inherited fears that drive narrow-mindedness and distrust. Politics even rears its head through brief discussions about public servants and upcoming elections.

Creative shifts in music; a fascinating exploration of allies, nemeses, and their motives; and the brash actions of a lynch mob are also at play. “The Defiant Ones” has no shortage of tense subplots (save for a lonely woman [Cara Williams] tangent that feels expected rather than necessary, even if it moves the plot forward and poses intriguing revelations of its own) and challenging notions – nor of surprises, especially when it comes to developing predicaments and psychological manipulations. Quick, intelligent, masterfully acted, unpredictable, and complete with a powerful, poetic conclusion, “The Defiant Ones” is truly a timeless classic.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10