“You can’t hang me. I’m white!”
When producer-director Stanley Kramer began to cast the two principal roles in The Defiant Ones — a story about two escaped convicts, one black, the other white, on the run in the South — he had two individuals in mind: Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando. Both were interested after reading the script and Poitier was available. The problem was Brando. He was busy filming Mutiny on the Bounty, but it was expected that he would be finished several months before The Defiant Ones was scheduled to start shooting. Unfortunately, Bounty dragged on and fearful of losing Poitier if he delayed The Defiant Ones, Kramer reluctantly began to consider other actors for the role of the white convict. Only after nearly every other major actor was approached and proved to be either unavailable or not interested did Kramer finally come down to Tony Curtis, an actor not generally thought of as a serious dramatic actor at the time. Curtis was very interested, partly because he saw it as opportunity to break out of the dead-end, pretty-boy roles he was becoming typecast in. With some misgivings, Kramer decided to take a chance and was rewarded with a fine performance by Curtis.
In fact, virtually everything about the 1958 film went over well and it received much critical approval and commercial success. It went on to receive nine Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (both Poitier and Curtis), winning for Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
MGM has now released The Defiant Ones on DVD in one of its standard bare-bones editions.
Joker Jackson and Noah Cullen are two convicts chained together in the back of a truck heading for work on a chain gang. When the truck is involved in a collision, the two find themselves to be the only survivors and head out on the run. Meanwhile a posse is organized by local sheriff Max Muller and with the aid of tracker dogs, they all set out to track down Jackson and Cullen.
Jackson who is white and Cullen who is black both have a strong hatred for each other and frequent arguments and fights punctuate the initial part of their time on the run. Gradually the two begin to tolerate each other and work together. They break into the supply store of a turpentine factory complex, but only barely manage to avoid being lynched by the workers due to the intervention of a sympathetic foreman. They are finally able to rid themselves of the chain when they come upon an isolated farm run by a woman and her son. The woman is attracted to Joker and suggests the two of them go off together, leaving Cullen to find his own way. When Joker learns that she has purposefully sent Cullen to his death, he has to decide what’s more important — saving himself, or saving Cullen.
Despite the passing of more than 40 years since its first release, The Defiant Ones still delivers a powerful message about racial tolerance. Much of its success is due to the manner in which it does so, allowing actions rather than words to make its point. The film is brilliantly conceived for it makes it almost impossible to take sides against it. Southerners, who might have been expected to have been most critical, had potential objections blunted. After all, as Kramer has stated, “They could hardly deny that there are white criminals as well as black, that whites and blacks were often chained together for the trip to prison, and that the prisons are full of racial discord because so many convicts hate each other on the grounds of race. In the cases of the two men in my film…no one can say they got away with their crimes. The only thing left to criticize in the film was the understanding and tolerance the two developed towards each other. A critic will hesitate to come out against understanding and tolerance, even if he or she doesn’t believe in either of them.”
Sidney Poitier (as Cullen) and Tony Curtis (as Joker) have to carry this film. They are on-screen together during virtually the entire time, and for much of it, chained together by a meter-long chain shackled to their wrists. Poitier is Poitier; that is to say, he delivers his usual strong performance, and so is completely believable as an ignorant criminal — a role somewhat at odds with the generally more-cultured characters he usually plays. Curtis is the real revelation here. In a career of now over 50 years in films, there are too few Curtis films that one can point to as being of any lasting value. In the early 1950s, he was shoe-horned into parts that didn’t suit him (Son of Ali Baba, The Black Shield of Falworth) and after the early 1960s, there were too many tepid romantic comedies and pot-boilers (Wild and Wonderful, Boeing Boeing, The Chastity Belt, You Can’t Win Them All, Casanova). Aside from 1968’s The Boston Strangler, Curtis’s most rewarding films came in the late 1950s when he had several opportunities to show his versatility. That he was not able to capitalize on his success during that time is hard to understand, although poor selection of material in the 1960s was a large part of the reason. From 1957 to 1960, he appeared in four very different films in which he was excellent: Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), Spartacus (1960), and The Defiant Ones (1958). As Joker in The Defiant Ones, there’s not the slightest hint of the pretty boy image that Curtis was trying to shake. He stands up to Poitier’s Cullen verbally and physically, with the result that there are real feelings of animosity and pain generated between the characters that are evident to the viewing audience.
The film also benefits from a fine supporting cast. Particularly standing out are Theodore Bikel as Sheriff Muller, Cara Williams as the (nameless) woman, and Lon Chaney as the foreman of the turpentine factory. Both Bikel and Williams received Academy Award nominations in the supporting actor categories. In his short role, Chaney displays both authoritative and sensitive sides to equally good effect. Also appearing are such familiar supporting players as Charles McGraw, King Donovan, Claude Akins and Whit Bissell.
The film’s look and sound is spare, allowing the actions and performances on the screen to carry the day, which they do most emphatically. Director Kramer avoids any attention-seeking camera work, with only one particular sequence standing out. When Joker and the woman are planning to take the car and leave Cullen behind, we see Cullen’s reflection in the car window as he comes into the garage and listens for several seconds, unknown to them. Similarly, the only music is that which arises naturally from the film’s events — Poitier’s singing and the portable radio that one of the posse insists on playing all the time.
MGM has provided a 1.66:1 non-anamorphic transfer for the film’s DVD. It’s a very fine effort. The image is crisp and clear with excellent shadow detail. Blacks are deep and luminous and the transfer benefits from a finely rendered gray scale. There are some fairly unobtrusive speckles and edge enhancement is non-existent.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound is also in very good shape. Dialogue is rich and clear, and free of age-related hiss or distortion. The limited music consisting of Poitier’s singing and the radio playing sounds true to nature. French and Spanish subtitles are included.
The only supplement is a fairly beat-up original theatrical trailer, standard fare for MGM releases.
The Defiant Ones is a finely acted and produced film of racial tolerance and understanding that stands up well more than 50 years after its first appearance. MGM has provided a very fine DVD transfer, although it lacks any substantive supplementary material. Recommended.
Definitely and defiantly not guilty. Case dismissed.