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.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS
“They call me Mister Tibbs.” When Virgil utters this classic line to Chief Gillespie in 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night”, the racial tensions have already been well-defined. And while the movie is a police drama/murder mystery, it’s the racial contention between a black Philadelphia police detective and the small Mississippi town that makes the film truly memorable. “In the Heat of the Night” won five Academy Awards including Best Picture and inspired two sequels and a popular TV series. But it’s the movie’s statement on 1960’s Southern racism and it’s strong black lead character that causes it to be recognized as a ground-breaking film.
The movie takes place in the small fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi. While out on patrol a deputy comes across the body of a wealthy business man. After ruling that the man was murdered, Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) sends a deputy to look around town. While checking out the train station, the deputy comes across a black man sitting inside. Unjustly assuming the man is the killer, the deputy arrests him and brings him to the station. The man informs Chief Gillespie that his name is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and he’s a homicide detective from Philadelphia. Virgil’s captain back in Philly recommends that he stay in Sparta and help with the murder investigation. Neither Virgil or Gillespie like the idea yet they both agree. But the case may never be solved due the incompetence of the police department and the numerous racial barriers that keep Tibbs from accomplishing anything.
Even though this is a crime drama, the murder mystery itself never feels all that important. The investigation spends most of its time looking in the wrong directions and when the killer is finally revealed it feels too convenient. This is the movie’s one significant shortcoming. A tighter more engaging mystery would have added another intense dimension to the story. But it could easily be argued that the murder mystery is simply a backdrop to the greater story of a small town police chief and a big city detective breaking down the walls of racism while dealing with their own personal biases. Steiger and Poitier are great together and watching their complex and often times abrasive relationship unfold provides us with the movie’s best moments.
The great attention given to the town and its citizens is another thing that makes the movie work. The small town South is perfectly captured and there was never a time I questioned its genuineness for a second. From its assortment of main street stores to its rundown parts of town, the film succeeds in providing the perfect setting. But while we saw the current day South we also catch a glimpse of the old South during a scene in which Gillespie and Tibbs go to question a rich plantation owner named Endicott. The drive up to the main house is lined with cotton fields filled with black workers and it almost feels as though the movie has moved back in time. This also leads to the famous scene where Endicott slaps Tibbs once he realizes he is being questioned for the murder. Tibbs slaps him back, something unheard of in that day. Tibbs’ physical retaliation drew attention from around the country once the movie was released and it marked an interesting turn in the way many movies treated black characters.
“In the Heat of the Night” certainly gets points for its head-on approach to the topic of racism. It also manages to keep the audience engaged by first getting us invested in Virgil Tibbs, then showing us the racially fueled obstacles and dangers that he was up against in Sparta, Mississippi. We also get a fantastic character in Chief Gillespie and it’s fascinating to watch him evolve as he fights with the community expectations and his own inner struggles. The small town vibe permeates every single scene and the hot and humid Southern summer makes everything sweatier and grimier. It’s just unfortunate that the murder mystery never feels as serious or as threatening as it should have been. That’s the only thing holding down “In the Heat of the Night”. But it’s something that did make a difference for me.
VERDICT – 4 STARS