Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” opens with a prison transport truck on a dark and rainy night. The guards in the cab are distracted by two fighting prisoners which causes them to lose control and roll into the ditch. With a heavy rain falling two men stumble out of the prison truck. They take off running, shackled together arm to arm, a white man and a black man. Each have their own prejudices and each have a hatred towards the other. The question becomes will they escape the law or will they kill themselves first?
Kramer was known for making what some call “message movies”. Throughout his acclaimed career he addressed a number of social and political issues. “The Defiant Ones” takes a candid look at racism through two fascinating characters and a story that allows for a pointed but entertaining approach to the subject. Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier handle the two lead roles and it doesn’t take long to see that these two men hate each other. Constant insults and unflattering nicknames such as “Colored” and “Joker” make up the bulk their early conversations.
The shackles that bind them together serves as an interesting metaphor. I won’t spoil it by going into detail but it was clearly the intent of Kramer and writers Harold Jacob Smith and Nedrick Young (Young had been blacklisted at the time. In fact both writers won Oscars for the film and Young’s award went to his pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas). On one hand the movie is a thriller about two escaped convicts and the manhunt to find them. But the social aspect can’t be ignored and unlike some of the more heavy-handed approaches that we see, “The Defiant Ones” looks at this subject through a smart and effective lens.
Tony Curtis wasn’t the first choice to star in the picture. Kramer insisted that Poitier be his man but conflicts involving Robert Mitchum and Marlon Brando, both in the running to star in the film, made that a problem. Mitchum eventually turned down the role and Kramer maneuvered his filming so that Brando had to drop out due to prior obligations. This opened the door for the casting of Curtis. I’ve always been mixed when it comes to Tony Curtis but he delivers a fantastic performance. His character’s arrogance and unbridled racism is the catalyst for the animosity between the two. Curtis slides into the role and sells it nicely.
But Kramer’s main choice Sidney Poitier was the real standout for me. Poitier is often looked at as a pioneer for African-Americans in the film industry. He certainly is that. But he was also a brilliant actor and we see it in this film. Poitier portrays a tough and rugged guy who has clearly been hardened by his experiences. There isn’t an ounce of insincerity from Poitier and I found his character compelling from the start. Both he and Curtis received Best Actor Oscar nominations (both would lose to David Niven for “Separate Tables), but for me Poitier is the highlight of the picture.
“The Defiant Ones” is also a visually stunning film thanks to Sam Leavitt’s Oscar-winning cinematography and Kramer’s sharp direction. A strong supporting cast featuring Theodore Bstraight ikel and Cara Williams (both of whom also received Oscar nominations) add even more quality. This is a smart and crafty movie that manages to be reflective and insightful. But it’s also highly entertaining as a thriller and it rarely takes its foot off the pedal. It hooked me from the opening scene.
Two great performances in the same film, on opposite ends of the handcuffs. Maybe Curtis’ s best role.
I really think it could be the best work Curtis did. I never was a huge fan of his. How about you? But he really is nicely cast here and he and Poitier are wonderful together.
He was always more movie star than actor, but he could be very good. Sweet Smell of Success and the Boston Stranger are also solid performances. I always liked that he and Kirk Douglas traded killing each other in Spartacus and The Vikings.
Oh yes! Sweet Smell is a really good movie. Talk about one I would love to revisit.
Have never heard of this movie before, but looks like a very interesting one.
It’s definitely a good one. It got a lot of attention when it was first released and rightfully so. If you get a chance to see it let me know what you think.
Not seen this one for a long time but I remember it being brilliant. Two unbelievably good performances. Proper classic cinema this. Good work mate.
Thanks man. I’m a big fan of it. That opening gets everything off on the perfect note. And as you said, two really great lead performances.
I’m ashamed to say that I have not seen any Sidney Poitier film 😦 Is this one you’d recommend most Keith? I know he won an Oscar for something, but can’t remember for which movie.
So no Sydney Poitier films? You really should see In the Heat of the Night first and I would definitely recommend this one.
OH, and look for Mr. Poitier to pop up again in an upcoming project of mine. (Hint, Hint, Teaser, Teaser).
I’ve only seen one Poitier film and that was In the Heat of the Night. I picked it up cheap on DVD a couple of months ago and I’d echo your recommendation to Ruth. Great supporting cast in that film too (Rod Steiger, Warren Oates etc.)
Have you seen his Oscar winning role in Lilies of the Field Keith?
I have seen Lilies of the Field but it has been a LONG time ago. It got a lot of Oscar attention that year but Poitier was the big winner. I really need to revisit that picture.
Excellent review, Keith! Love this film. Been so long since I’ve watched it last. It’s very relevant and deeply important which is what Kramer did best when dealing with subtext.
Nice pick and good job, man 🙂
Thanks so much. I’m a big fan. Rewatched it for the review and like all great movies it holds up.
An important film at the time of its release and it’s still relevant today. Terrific performances from the two leads. Glad you highlighted this one Keith.
Thanks man. It is really good isn’t it. As you mentioned, terrific performances from Curtis and Poitier.
the defiant ones is probably my favorite poitier movie next to edge of the city where he has an even better chemistry with john cassavettes than he does with curtis and his chemistry with curtis is dynamic and phenomenal. i am particularly struck by the white actors like burt lancaster, gregory peck, kirk douglas, frank sinatra, and robert mitchum who were approached before curtis and were not keen to work with poitier. makes me admire john cassavettes all the more.
initially the defiant ones may have been a vehicle for elvis presley and sammy davis, jr. since poitier sings at the beginning and ending of the film i could certainly see elvis performing a song or two. then again, since elvis was known for being a ladies man in his films, it would be hard to imagine elvis abandoning a woman for the love of his best friend. i can’t think of an elvis movie where he place the love of a male friend above his leading lady love interest.
Wow! The Elvis bit is interesting. I really can’t see him in that role at all. It would have undoubtedly been a case of him stretching his boundaries as an actor.