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The Defiant Ones (1958) dir: Stanley Kramer Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka!)

Two escaped convicts - one black, one white

The Defiant Ones is set in America’s Deep South. A truck carrying a group of chained prisoners swerves to avoid an oncoming vehicle. The severe rainy conditions cause the driver to misjudge and careen down an embankment. Two prisoners who have been chained together - white John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) and black Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) - manage to escape from the wrecked vehicle and run out into the countryside together. When an examination of the crash leaves them unaccounted for, a posse, led by Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel) attempts to track them down. Since Joker is a racist and doesn’t hesitate in letting Noah know about it, the two escapees naturally don’t get on at all well. Indeed, the Sheriff himself puts his views very succinctly:

“They'll kill each other in five miles.”

However, since they have to work together to survive the wilderness and escape being recaptured, they begin to develop a bond of comradeship.

Watch a trailer:

A gritty tale, charged with racial politics

The Defiant Ones is one the best known examples of Hollywood liberal director Stanley Kramer’s “message pictures”. It also made Sidney Poitier into the first fully-fledged African-American movie star on account of his serious acting talents rather than some form of musical/dancing talent. To give a true sense of historical perspective, one must bear in mind that it was made in an era when racial segregation was still a shameful fact of life in some parts of the United States.

Nonetheless, when one overlooks the fact that the politics are nowhere near as controversial as they once were, that the photography is black-and-white and that the opening crash sequence uses some rather obvious miniature work, The Defiant Ones feels far more modern than most 1950s Hollywood films. In lieu of the usual melodramatic, overtly studio-bound style of other productions of this period, it has a gritty and realistic feel right down to the authentic accents and dialogue. Another notable attribute is that all of the music is diegetic, i.e. it comes from sources within the scenes themselves rather than from an overlaid score. For example, the opening song Long Gone (From Bowlin' Green) is sung by Poitier himself during the opening prison truck journey. At various points through the film, pieces of music are heard emanating from a portable radio carried by one posse member.

Most of the film takes place outdoors, with a heavy emphasis on the characters facing the full force of the elements. When our protagonists attempt to make their way across a fast-flowing river, or pull themselves out of a huge muddy hole several metres deep, the sense of immersion in the natural danger is imbued effectively by the fact that Curtis and Poitier are visibly carrying out their own stunt work. The most memorable action sequence, however, occurs when the pair come across a backwoods town and attempt to break into a storehouse. The suspense is effectively orchestrated, particularly when they end up alerting some locals, whose torch beams are seen tracking perilously close to them as they try, in vain, to skulk in the darkness.

Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones

The film features some chillingly stark depictions of entrenched racism. There’s one scene - where the two protagonists are threatened with lynching - which is preceded by the small but unsettling detail of local mob leader named Mack (Claude Akins) asking for the women and children to leave, the implication being that they wouldn’t want to see what is about to transpire. A young boy whom they encounter later on in the proceedings is also shown to be visibly scared of the black Noah as he chooses to come to Joker’s side to seek protection.

Nowadays, most of us will have seen enough movies of this ilk to know full well that the duo will become unshakeably loyal buddies by the end. However, there is a palpable sense of rage in Curtis and Poitier’s Oscar-nominated lead performances, along with numerous layers of character backstory revealed throughout to keep the jaded modern viewer invested in their fates. There are also a few touches of quirky humour which prevent things from becoming too dour - whether it’s our starving protagonists pouncing on a huge bullfrog and cooking it for dinner, or the posse’s dog handler Solly (King Donovan) and his ludicrously over-protective attitude towards his animals. It’s a well-paced film for the most part, the exception being a romantic subplot which practically grinds things to a halt in the final third. Even it, however, pays off in a surprising way.

The Defiant Ones holds up pretty well today. Stanley Kramer was often accused of being overly heavy-handed and didactic. In this case, however, his rather obvious (albeit well-meaning) message doesn’t overwhelm the film’s considerable entertainment value.

Runtime: 96 mins

Dir: Stanley Kramer

Script: Nedrick Young, Harold Jacob Smith

Starring: Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, Theodore Bikel, Charles McGraw, Lon Chaney Jr., King Donovan, Claude Akins, Kevin Coughlin, Cara Williams

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

Sam Leavitt’s black-and-white cinematography looks absolutely stunning here. Every image is so impeccable it could be hung up on a wall. The sound restoration is mostly great, bar one scene involving Tony Curtis and Cara Williams whispering to each other which comes across as a little too faint to clearly make out what they are saying to each other.

Extras

Kim Newman Interview

It’s another welcome contribution to a Eureka! disc courtesy of the eccentric Kim Newman, who comes to the conclusion that the film has something of a gay subtext (watch it and you’ll see what he means). He describes director Stanley Kramer as being “important rather than good” but later admits that he always handled actors very well. He also points out that the fact that he held liberal views, during a time when many Hollywood talents were blacklisted for their left-leaning politics, was commendably brave.

A trailer is also included on the disc.

Overall:

Along with Inherit the Wind and No Way Out, The Defiant Ones is one of a trio of recent releases featuring director Stanley Kramer and/or actor Sidney Poitier to make pertinent and hard-hitting points about prejudice. Recommended.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆

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