Compact, clear, niftily edited and formally, at times, breathtakingly beautiful, The Defiant Ones, about racial brotherhood, has stood the test of time. Certainly, unlike nearly every other film by producer-director Stanley Kramer, it hasn’t become a target of critical derision. Nevertheless, because of the extent and depth of that derision, it may be necessary to remind ourselves that Kramer was once highly regarded. Even those, like Pauline Kael, who proved themselves prophetic by deriding Kramer at the height of his popularity, I might add, conceded that The Defiant Ones was the best film that Kramer directed. (More famous are some films that Kramer produced before becoming a director, for instance, 1952’s High Noon—Bill Clinton’s favorite movie—and 1954’s The Caine Mutiny, highlighted by Humphrey Bogart’s ferociously paranoid Captain Queeg.) I will have something to say about how much of the film Kramer is likely to have actually directed; but there can be little doubt that the finished piece in this case is something to reckon with. The New York Film Critics Circle named it the best English-language film of 1958.
Here is a likeable and very moving film, even if it lacks the existential dimension that its dramatic material seems to cry out for. The Defiant Ones is nearly as good as John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947) as both a physical and a moral adventure. I love the latter more; Treasure has something more to give—among other things, the existential dimension that Kramer’s film lacks. But The Defiant Ones warrants being placed in the same esteemed company.
Nedrick Young’s story is bone-bare simple. (Blacklisted, Young is credited under the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas. He and Harold Jacob Smith won richly deserved Oscars for their story and screenplay.) In the contemporary rural south, two violent convicts, John “Joker” Jackson and Noah Cullen, escape at night when the truck transporting them to a lockup facility overturns in a storm. One white, the other black, they are shackled to each other; they hate one another because of their racial difference. However, their flight from authorities that are searching for them can succeed only if they work together toward their common goal of freedom. By degrees, necessity tempers their discord, and they find harbor with a widow with a small son. They sever the chain bounding each to the other. When Jackson discovers that Cullen has been set up for death in a swamp by the widow who offers him alone a chance to flee with her into a new life, he is torn. The emotional bond that has grown between him and Cullen dictates his moral decision to attempt to save Cullen’s life. The two are caught.
One of the greatest failures of current commercial U.S. cinema is in the area of plot, which in film after film there is simply too much of. The Defiant Ones reminds us that this wasn’t always the case. The one aspect where, in this regard, Kramer’s film may be faulted, though, is the parallel action of the hunt for the two escapees, which sporadically, and somewhat irritatingly, interrupts the main thrust of the narrative. On the other hand, this material isn’t irrelevant. Jurisdictional dissension in the ranks of the hunters ironically reflects on similar divisions in the debate over the issue of civil rights in the nation, and I can’t recall a more accurate portrayal of one aspect of the southern personality: slyness and alertness just below the surface of seeming laziness. In more ways than one, while watching this film you feel the heat.
It’s surprising how many themes The Defiant Ones brings into concert. One is racial hatred as a divider of humanity. Another refers to the source of this hatred: society, which by imposing this hostility has thus divided each of the two criminals against himself. The third theme is implicit in the second: there is, buried in each man, a capacity to grow beyond the societal imposition; there’s a spark of humanity in both main characters that’s attuned to their commonality. The fourth theme is implicit in the third: the racial divisiveness within the larger community, even the nation, is capable of radical solution through whatever means, including laws, that can “undivide” individuals by pressuring each to find, to feel, the inner spark of humanity that society has harshly suppressed. Society can redeem itself. At the conclusion of the film we aren’t sorry that the two men have been captured, because the film in no way obscures the fact that these are criminals who pose a real threat to society. At the same time, we are elated at the small victory for us all insofar as the two men have bonded across the trench of race that society has dug so deep. Their impetus has been the freedom both of them coveted but are ultimately willing to risk losing in favor of their new bond of friendship and tolerance. The allusion to Jean Renoir’s great La grande illusion (1937)—the passage involving the peasant girl—refers to the theme of freedom, so much at the heart of the Renoir masterpiece, that comprises the Kramer film’s other themes. The Defiant Ones thus makes this implicit statement: For America to be truly free, it must overcome its racial prejudice and divides. It’s rare for a Kramer film to have an idea, as distinct from a message, but this one is intellectually alive and bristlingly suggestive.
Although there’s a trace of speechifying in the parallel action of the hunt, the main action, the flight of the convicts, is blissfully free of any taint of this. The ideas generated are contained in the action itself and in the mise-en-scène. The dialogue, expert, cuts like a knife. While they are chained together, Jackson pulls Cullen out of a swamp; when Cullen thanks him (the first positive sentiment that has passed between them), Jackson retorts with absolute conviction that he wasn’t dragging Cullen out of danger but keeping Cullen from dragging him in. This encapsulates the two’s whole immediate predicament, while at the same time preparing us for one of the film’s many echoes: when, later, Jackson heads for another swamp in order to rescue Cullen again, but this time unselfishly, by choice. Near the end, Jackson and Cullen try escaping by train. Cullen has jumped on and extends his hand to Jackson, who is running on the ground. The shot, of the white hand desperately reaching for the black one, is, to say the least, thrilling, and the furiousness of the pace, dictated by the speed of the train, again contains the film’s “message” in the sheer physicality of the action. Too, the image reverberates, because the attempted linkage of the hands—and the emotional bond, which this implies, that we cannot see—has replaced the chain that once physically bound them. Ultimately, Cullen tumbles off the train, and it’s impossible to know whether he has lost his footing, Jackson has inadvertently pulled him off, or, in failing to grab and lift Jackson up into the open train, he has opted to reunite with Jackson on the ground. The ambiguity is entirely justified because it doesn’t matter which is the case, and it doesn’t matter because no resentment passes between them, in either direction, as a result. Thus in this instance the film makes its point not by what we see and hear but by what we don’t see and hear: the scowls and well-voiced enmity that earlier passed between them. At that point, stunningly, the train that has left both of them behind echoes as a metaphor for the humane and moral distance that these two souls have traveled in the course of the film.
Moreover, the mise-en-scène is decisive for clarifying the film’s issues. The daunting trees, the treacherous terrain, the gaping swamps below: all these are correlative to the forces arrayed against the two men, in terms of their ability both to elude authorities and to come together as escapees and, finally, as men. The visual irony is exquisite; for here, freshly and unexpectedly, gorgeous, dangerous, ravenous Nature—the wilds—refers to human nature, society, the immoral education that society provides its members on the issue of race, and all the dangers for society and its individuals that this “education” generates.
Not to be churlish but at least accurate, there’s so much action in this film, all of which holds the film back from becoming the kind of blatantly preachy thing that we associate with Kramer films (Not As a Stranger, Judgment at Nuremberg, Ship of Fools, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), that we must wonder just how responsible Kramer is for the fine outcome. Usually, “action stuff” in a Hollywood film is handled by assistant directors or the production’s second unit. Paul Helmick is the credited assistant director (another assistant director, Clem Beauchamp, is listed as the production manager), and it’s likely that he directed much, if not most, of the film. When one compares The Defiant Ones to its immediate predecessor in the Kramer œuvre, the lumbering, ridiculous The Pride and the Passion (1957), one must say either that Kramer learned a great deal from that fiasco or that someone else directed The Defiant Ones. Kramer’s subsequent films insist that the latter is the case. (Not until 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World would a Kramer film rely so heavily on assistants and the second unit.) Regardless, we can be certain that Kramer himself directed the “dialogue scenes,” for instance, the discussions between the two men leading the efforts to recapture the escapees, and the exchanges between Jackson and the widow. Though not without merit, these are the film’s weakest scenes.
Indeed, a considerable part of the film’s artistic success is owed to two other contributors: Kramer’s loyal cutter, Frederic Knudtson, and his black-and-white cinematographer, Sam Leavitt, who won an Oscar, again richly deserved, for his work here.
Most of the acting in the film is satisfactory. In the supporting cast, Cara Williams (screwy Gladys in TV’s Pete and Gladys, the spin-off of December Bride, where we never saw her character) is especially good as the lonely, cold-hearted widow, who, like Curley’s wife in John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, goes unnamed. The two lead performances are marvelous—rock solid and intense. Tony Curtis, the Johnny Depp-pretty boy of his day, loses every trace of his familiar personality (not to mention those fulsome curly locks of his) for the role of Joker Jackson, a man embittered nearly to the bone, the film implies, because his poverty leaves his whiteness as his one defense against identifying, hence bonding, with oppressed blacks. As Cullen, Sidney Poitier (best actor, Berlin, British Academy) is, if anything, even better. Like Curtis, Poitier pulled himself together for his best role, almost erasing memories of his flimsy earlier work in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950) and Zoltan Korda’s Cry the Beloved Country (1951)—both estimable films, and, while Poitier flailed, terrifically acted by Richard Widmark and Canada Lee. Cullen, in The Defiant Ones, is an authentic character, not at all the bland image of the Negro that liberal whitewash would turn Poitier’s screen persona into. Both actors are thoroughly believable in their mutual hatred and disregard, and both succeed in detailing the intricate transformation their characters undergo. I revisited this film precisely to note these transformations, in the wake of seeing for the first time Boaz Yakin’s glossy, worthless Remember the Titans (2000), in which white and black kids who hate one another end up loving one another, but with only the sketchiest explanation given for the change—an unconscionable film for the real American racial issues it toys with and demeans.
Poitier and Curtis, by contrast, help keep The Defiant Ones attuned to a difficult, challenging reality, a persistent chord of truth.
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