Stanley Kramer was one of Hollywood’s most unashamedly liberal directors, and The Defiant Ones stands out (along with Inherit The Wind, Judgement at Nuremberg and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ) as one of his major triumphs. Nominated for nine Academy Awards (and winner of two, for best screenplay and cinematography), it stars Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as two chain gang prisoners whose enmity and racial distrust slowly disappear as they make a desperate bid for freedom. “Stanley Kramer has turned out a raw, powerful film that is as exciting as it is moving, real and literate,” Variety reflected, adding, “It uses the potential of the screen in putting across its message without hammering it home with a sledgehammer.”
Curtis is John ‘Joker’ Jackson while Poitier plays Noah Cullen. The two prisoners, chained together by a warder who recognises their mutual hatred, have to try and collaborate when their truck overturns and they’re given an unexpected chance to escape. With a 12-hour head start over Sheriff Muller (Theodore Bikel) and his men, the fugitives argue and bicker their way across rivers, clay pits and all manner of obstacles, only narrowly escaping a lynching from a murderous mob. Help seems to be at hand when a single woman (Cara Williams) manages to unshackle them and offers them shelter. She’s attracted to Jackson but when he discovers that she’s given Cullen directions that will take him directly into a swamp, Jackson sets off in pursuit of his former foe and endangers his own life in a bid to save Cullen’s.
Kramer keeps the story simple and the plot taut, and isn’t afraid to depict the racial hatred between the two men. The movie’s universal themes have ensured that it’s been subsequently remade several times, including Black Mama, White Mama in 1972 and Fled in 1996 are among them. None have come close to matching the power of the original or replicating the chemistry of Curtis and Poitier.
USA / 1958
Director: Stanley Kramer
Writers: Nathan E Douglas, Harold Jacob Smith
Cast: Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, Theodore Bikel, Charles McGraw, Lon Chaney, Lawrence Dobkin, Cara Williams