Stanley Kramer / USA / 1958 / 96 mins
Available on Blu Mon 11 Jun 2018
No stranger to exploring provocative themes, Stanley Kramer delighted in topical issues such as greed, politics, creationism and nuclear war. One of his favourite topics was the casual and often brutal racism inherent in contemporary society; with The Defiant Ones, Kramer takes his first swing at this burning issue which still, unfortunately, rages on today.
The story concerns itself with two convicts who, after a freak road accident, find themselves on the run. The rub? The two men must evade the clutches of the police across rivers, through swamps and around cavernous clay-pits, all the while chained together at the wrist. Oh, and one of them (Tony Curtis) is white, the other (Sidney Poitier) black. Unsurprisingly, tempers fray, sparks fly and unlikely bonds are finally forged.
While the development of the relationship between the two might seem somewhat predictable by today’s standards, there is enough tension and suspense in the police chase to keep things ticking over nicely. Moreover, the themes it explores are still very much relevant today; indeed, it’s rare to see a 60-year-old film hold its own against modern-day “message” cinema, but The Defiant Ones does so – and then some. The dialogue is unpolished and believable, but poignant and affecting throughout.
In fact, the impressiveness of the piece outstrips modern movies in many respects. For example, the daring of the two actors is put to the test in a number of physically impressive stunt scenes, including a river rapids tumble, a clamber out of a hole in the ground and a lung-busting race against a train. While both men did apparently use a double for the more dangerous aspects, by and large the film was crafted by their own blood, sweat and tears – no mean feat for two of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the day.
Aside from these credentials, which are adequately complemented by the superb acting ability of both, the film’s main strength obviously lies in its message. The nonchalant callousness shown towards Noah Cullen, simply because of his skin colour, is effective in jarring the audience’s emotional response, while “Joker” Jackson’s gut reactions are troubling on a multitude of occasions. Throughout the film’s duration, we are repeatedly asked to examine the “rules” of society and our complicit part in perpetuating them, making for a thoughtful, thrilling and moving piece of cinema.
At a time when confronting such a political hot potato as racism in the poisonous pantheon of Hollywood could break careers in an instant, Kramer’s devotion to his beliefs is highly commendable. He should certainly be lauded for tackling such themes in the first place, but the superb execution of his intentions elevates this classic from the level of great to outstanding vintage cinema. A must-watch for everyone.