REVIEW: The Defiant Ones [1958]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 96 minutes
    Release Date: September 27th, 1958 (USA)
    Studio: United Artists
    Director(s): Stanley Kramer
    Writer(s): Harold Jacob Smith / Nedrick Young (story)

They’ll probably kill each other before they go five miles.

Whether to satisfy his own desire to not sit in silence or earn the ire of the guards transporting him to jail, Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) is introduced at the back of a prison wagon singing W.C. Handy’s “Long Gone” to effectively achieve both. The cops aren’t alone in wishing he’d shut his mouth, though. The inmate chained to his wrist (Tony Curtis‘ John ‘Joker’ Jackson) wants to silence him too—if his size disadvantage would allow such an act of suppression to be possible. Fortunately for him, neither gets the chance to see who’d win in a fight … yet. Another vehicle sideswipes the wagon, pushing them off-road into a tumble. And when Sheriff Muller (Theodore Bikel) arrives to survey the scene, Cullen and Joker are gone.

Stanley Kramer‘s The Defiant Ones, as adapted by Harold Jacob Smith from a story by Nedrick Young, isn’t just your usual escaped prisoner adventure. More than watching to see if they’re captured, our engagement lies in the central relationship between two men discovering that they aren’t so different in the ways they thought they were and very different in the ways they didn’t. That’s the point of the film regardless of authenticity (it’s said Robert Mitchum turned the role of Joker down because he, having served on a chain-gang, knew no southern jail would ever connect an interracial pair—”sense of humor” or not). How will their inability to escape the other force them to actually talk and learn about the other’s plight away from society’s indoctrinated prejudices?

It’s no surprise Smith and Young would ultimately win an Oscar for best screenplay as the dialogue that fuels this reckoning plays out with pointed commentary that unfortunately still needs to be wielded today despite us being sixty years removed. There are so many lightbulb moments like the one after Joker laments about his hatred of the words “Thank you” because of how demeaning they became when he was forced to say them for tips while working as a hotel valet. This is a white man who tried to get into a semantics argument with a Black man about using the ‘n-word’ who refuses to see past his nose to realize he’s been all but demanding a “yessir” back whenever deigning to show Cullen a modicum of humanity.

Add the visceral reactions of outsiders upon seeing Joker and Cullen together (a lynch mob readying for blood or a young white boy running from one criminal to another simply because “Black” means danger and “white” means safety) and you’d have to be a Nazi not to finally acknowledge your own prejudices and recognize the former’s struggles don’t begin to compare with the latter’s. Their anger at having to kowtow to the establishment isn’t equal. Joker was able to cultivate his out of jealousy, believing himself privileged enough to have wealth and power handed directly to him. Cullen was born with his. Being unruly didn’t merely risk him becoming unemployed or destitute. It might get him killed—at the hands of the rich and men like Joker too.

There’s also a thread of commentary about criminals versus non-criminals thanks to Kramer continuously shifting our vantage point to the people hunting them down. Sheriff Muller oversees the chase, but state trooper Capt. Gibbons (Charles McGraw) isn’t going to sit by without trying to assert a militaristic authority over the situation. The former is determined to get his men, but he will not cross any lines to do so. Gibbons conversely recruits armed vigilantes to be deputized that he’s more than willing to order into searching without stop for days on end. He also wants to unleash a pair of murderous Dobermanns to take Joker and Cullen out before they have a chance to run too far. That’s the difference between completing a job and pursuing an enemy.

It’s also the difference between seeing human beings and animals. Because there’s no difference between the lynch mob that catches Joker and Cullen breaking into a house to find a chisel and food and the one Gibbons has sanctioned to kill. If not for Big Sam (Lon Chaney Jr.) diffusing his neighbors by calling their bluff to shame them into dispersing or Muller for asserting his control to look at what’s happening logically and without racially motivated emotion, The Defiant Ones would have ended after ten minutes with two bodies torn to shreds. Empathy isn’t weakness. Treating all men and women regardless of race or history isn’t foolhardy. To not do so is to stoke fear, quick trigger fingers, and avoidable bloodbaths. And yet: (*gestures to the world*).

The only way to combat that is with dialogue since hate has a way of silencing understanding. If Gibbons had his way, Joker and Cullen would have died hating each other for no reason beyond the faulty ones fed to them by a society uninterested in evolving. Instead, they find themselves needing to save the other from nature and man with every passing minute. Being chained together demands teamwork and compromise in a way that allows their impulses to take over where peer pressure and emotion would have otherwise. Every time Joker reveals a truth about being white, Cullen stands and smiles knowingly. Every time a stranger’s act reveals a truth about Cullen being Black, Joker lowers his eyes in embarrassment. Whether subtle or overt, these performances educate.

Curtis and Poitier earned Oscar nominations for best actor as a result, their rage and sanctimony consistently matched by compassion and loyalty. It’s enough to even overcome the male-ist gaze to ever male gaze when placing them in the home of a recently abandoned mother (Cara Williams) written so archaically that she’s ready to abandon her kid to jump into bed with the (apparently) first (white) man she’s seen in months. Joker and Cullen’s growth as a duo is honest, their communal plight overshadowing the animosity beaten into them from conception. And the evidence of white America’s racism (men, women, law enforcement, and yokels alike) is undeniably accurate too. If killing a white man is the price for killing a Black man, all but two characters say, “Okay.”

Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.

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