The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - THE DEFIANT ONES (1958) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - THE DEFIANT ONES (1958)

the defiant ones review
Two convicts - one black, one white - make a dash for freedom while chained together.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Stanley Kramer

Starring: Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, Theodore Bikel, Charles McGraw, Lon Chaney Jr, Claude Akins, Whit Bissell

the defiant ones eureka blu-ray

In the 1950s and '60s, as the Production Code began to loosen its grip on the subjects films could portray, Hollywood got political, as filmmakers challenged the comfortable norms and deep-rooted prejudices of American society. Today, many of the films of the era are as likely to offend liberal viewers as conservatives, thanks to what now play as naive takes on subjects like race and religion. Ironically, it's allegorical sci-fi movies, and particularly TV shows, which were dismissed at the time as drive-in fodder, that hold up far better than most of the more direct and literal dramas of their day. On TV, shows like Star Trek, The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone delivered thrilling, fantastical entertainment while commenting on the issues of the day. On the big screen, movies like Planet of the Apes and Invasion of the Body Snatchers discussed racism, religion and fascism while clad in a genre veil.

One of those straightforward, 'important' movies, set very much in the real America of its day, was Stanley Kramer's 1958 film The Defiant Ones. How's this for a high concept hook? Two convicts make a dash for freedom when their prison truck crashes. Trouble is, they're chained together. And one is black (Sidney Poitier's Noah Cullen) while the other is white (Tony Curtis's John 'Joker' Jackson).

the defiant ones

The Defiant Ones is as subtle as you might expect a 1958 movie about a white man and a black man chained together to be. There's no allegory under the surface here - its message is right up there on the screen in...well, black and white, as Cullen and Jackson bicker and brawl like dogs, turning the simplest disagreements regarding the best means of survival into a sermon about how if America is to escape the chasing hounds of its past, its people are going to have to put their differences aside and work together.

Liberals at the time no doubt patted themselves on the back for understanding Kramer's not so veiled lecture, and it can be argued that the film, like so many Hollywood race dramas, is designed not so much to enlighten its white audience as to make them feel better about themselves. The white antagonists are variations of that classic go-to hate figure of American liberal cinema, the working class Southerner, culturally distant enough from his polite, middle class Northern neighbours to allow them to think they're somehow better than him because they keep their bigotry under their hats and would never dream of uttering the N-word. The African-American protagonist is the type of 'dignified negro' that white people like to embrace as screen heroes, well-spoken and educated enough to make them forget they're watching someone they wouldn't want their daughter to bring home.

For more brutally honest takes on the scenario of The Defiant Ones, audiences would have to wait until the '70s, when the blaxploitation craze allowed filmmakers to make money without worrying about offending white audiences. 1973's Black Mama White Mama chains Pam Grier and Margaret Markov together in a superior gender reversal, while the previous year's The Thing with Two Heads employs the outrageous premise of transplanting the head of Ray Milland's white racist onto the shoulder of Rosey Grier's black convict. Both movies offer a far less palatable conversation about race relations than Kramer's film.

the defiant ones

Yet while The Defiant Ones may be a dead rubber as a race drama, it's still a gripping adventure, anchored by two central performances that see both Poitier and Curtis deliver arguably the performances of their career. The two men's acting styles are in stark contrast, yet dovetail nicely. Poitier is the much more internalised of the two, keeping his character's rage buried inside, only occasionally allowing it to rise to the surface and betray his torment. Curtis, on the other hand, is extravagant without ever wandering into the hammy territory he would later become known for thanks to a series of roles that saw the very 20th century Curtis miscast in period epics. If you only knew Curtis for this role and his unscrupulous press agent in 1957's Sweet Smell of Success you might mistakenly believe he was as lauded for his acting style as Brando, Clift and Dean.

While Harold Jacob Smith's script, adapted from a Nedrick Young short story, hammers home its theme with the bluntness of the rock its protagonists attempt to break their iron shackles with, Kramer at times uses imagery to make his point in a far less didactic fashion. At one point the convicts find themselves captured by workers at a camp, only to be freed by Big Sam, a sympathetic figure played by Lon Chaney Jr. When Sam reaches out his hand, his sleeve rises up his arm, revealing the tell-tale mark that he was once shackled himself. Rather than making any verbal acknowledgment, Kramer simply has the three men exchange knowing glances of mutual comradeship. Later, Cullen accidentally knocks a young white boy unconscious. As the boy awakes, Kramer cuts to his subjective point of view as he awakes to be greeted by Cullen's anxious face. Employing the only extreme close-up in the film, it's a jolting moment, the film letting its guard down to remind its white audience that though they may have embraced Cullen by this point, he's still very much a black man, one whose close-up would have plunged entire cinema auditoriums into darkness for a few brief but telling seconds.

the defiant ones

Going back to Chaney, I like to think that The Defiant Ones unofficially takes place in the Universal Monsters universe, and that his Big Sam is actually the Wolf Man himself, Larry Talbot, forced to adopt a new identity and roam from job to job like Richard Kimble until the full moon catches up with him. What a TV show that could have been? Chaney is only on screen for a few brief minutes, but he makes a huge impact. He's far from the most talented actors, but few can rival him when it comes to generating sympathy.

The movie's climax, in which both men sacrifice their freedom in doomed attempts to save each other, is difficult to swallow, unless you buy the line that The Defiant Ones is a touchstone of homoerotic cinema, and the bond that develops between Jackson and Cullen goes deeper than friendship. Perhaps today, it's this aspect of Kramer's film that's more intriguing and revolutionary than its on-the-surface and on-the-nose plea for racial harmony.

Along with the original trailer you get an interview with the entertaining and informative Kim Newman.

The Defiant Ones is on dual format blu-ray/DVD June 11th from Eureka Classics.