The Defiant Ones (1958)
I’ve learned that the directorial filmography of Stanley Kramer is feast or famine. This space has previously featured columns about “On the Beach” and “Ship of Fools,” finding them to be heavy-handed films whose strident moralism overpowers their functionality as movies. Of course, he also directed wonderful pictures like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “Inherit the Wind.”
I guess the secret to Kramer is to steer clear of any movies not starring Spencer Tracy.
Sadly, “The Defiant Ones” falls into the former category. It’s a mawkish, occasionally cringe-worthy treatise against racism and imprisonment, featuring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as a white man and a black man shackled together while on the lam from a chain gang.
Despite its pedigree — nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for both Poitier and Curtis, and two wins (for cinematography and original screenplay) — I found it obvious and blunt as social commentary. It’s pretty much ordained that the two main characters’ antagonism will boil over and then cool into a forged friendship based on altruism and shared sacrifice.
Curtis plays Johnny “Joker” Jackson, and Poitier is Noah Cullen. Joker uses the n-word freely, which befits his Southern rearing. Deep down, however, Joker’s hard-boiled anger is directed more at a world that has beaten him down than any particular race or group. Cullen was a regular farmer and family man before he was sent to prison for assaulting a bank officer who came to foreclose his property.
It’s the usual strong performance from Poitier, playing a man who recognizes he can’t change the deck that’s stacked against him but isn’t about to take it lying down. It’s interesting to see him play an uneducated rural man since we associate a certain intellectualism with Poitier’s screen persona.
Curtis’ acting, though, is borderline awful. His famous Bronx accent bleeds through his faux Southern one like a bloody shirt, and he continually grits his teeth in a failed attempt to show the character’s self-loathing — walking around with this ridiculous rictus grin most of the time. Curtis should’ve taken a few notes from Humphrey Bogart, who could convey a great deal of bile just by sliding his jaw a bit.
Apart from this sub-par turn here, Curtis had a brilliant but truncated career. He essentially had a 10- or 12-year run of greatness beginning in 1957, with starring roles in some of the era’s most iconic films — “Some Like It Hot,” “Spartacus” and “Sweet Smell of Success” among them — but by his 45th birthday in 1970 he was essentially done, reduced to silly movies and small parts. Curtis never seemed to mind being out of the limelight, though, and turned to painting in his autumn years. “The Defiant Ones” was his only Academy Award nomination. It’s flabbergasting to me that Curtis was nominated for this terrible performance, while his brilliant one in “Some Like It Hot” was not.
The screenplay has a pretty straightforward three-act structure. The first part deals with Joker and Cullen’s escape when the prison van overturns and the beginning of the manhunt to chase them down. They bicker, and Joker complains about being chained to a black man, but they realize their fates are entwined.
The second act is built around their growing desperation to escape, culminating with their capture by the residents of a tiny village while breaking into the hardware store to separate their chains. The racist mob is whipped into a frenzy by the local hothead (Claude Akins) who wants a lynching. Joker is gobsmacked by the idea that he would be hanged just like a black man, though he later admits to Cullen he saw some lynchings in his youth.
Lon Chaney Jr. has a brief but powerful role as Big Sam, the local foreman who puts a stop to the lynching, and secretly frees Cullen and Joker in the middle of the night. Again, though, Kramer and his screenwriters (Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith) aren’t content with a moment of simple humanistic empathy, ramping up the mawkishness by revealing that Big Sam was once a chain-gang member, too.
I did admire the cutaway scenes to the pursuing posse, led by a somewhat progressive sheriff (Theodore Bikel, who also got an Oscar nod) with a distaste for employing harsher methods like attack dogs. He’s badgered by a gung-ho state trooper — played by famously gravel-voiced character actor Charles McGraw, who also was the gladiator trainer in “Spartacus” — who deems the sheriff soft.
The final act is where things fall utterly apart. After finally coming to blows, Cullen and Joker stumble across a lonely farm wife (Cara Williams) and her young son. Although she’s initially a hostage, the woman (who is never named) helps the two prisoners break their chains, feeds them and nurses Joker back to health after he collapses from his injuries and ordeal.
Then, the predictable happens: She and Joker fall in love. Or at least lust. Or something. After having sex, they wake up early in the morning before Cullen and her son and resolve to take her car and run off on both of them. Cullen wakes up and overhears their conversation, realizing that he’s no longer necessary to Joker.
The woman gives Cullen false directions to the railroad tracks through the swamp, believing he will be swallowed up by the bog and not be able to give away their plans. Joker discovers her ruse and is enraged, racing after his friend to save him after being shot by the boy when he wrestles with his mother. Joker and Cullen fail to catch the train — Cullen makes it aboard but refuses to let go of the injured Joker and is pulled off — and are caught by the sheriff, wrapped in each others’ arms.
This whole sequence is either way too short or too long. The idea that a woman would be willing to abandon her life and child for a man she’s only met a few hours earlier — a runaway prisoner at that — simply strains credulity to the breaking point. Granted, she’s lonely and dreams of life in a big city, but to believe she’s that desperate, we would need to know a lot more about the character than we learn in a relatively short amount of screen time.
As Joker points out right before running off, she doesn’t even know his name.
I wanted to like “The Defiant Ones,” but its strident moralizing and hammy story construction put it into the “Bad Kramer” file for me.