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 Bikel 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.