Review: The Defiant Ones
Two convicts escape a chain gang whilst still chained together. One is a racist, angry white southerner (Tony Curtis), the other an African-American (Sidney Poitier). They may not like each other, but they’re gonna need to work together if they are to evade the law, let alone a nasty lynch mob (headed by Claude Akins). Unfortunately, they don’t just dislike one another, they hate each other. Theodore Bikel is the sheriff under pressure from not only the governer, but hawkish State police captain Charles McGraw who wants to deploy dogs to track the men down before they get too much of a headstart. Lon Chaney Jr. plays a man who helps the duo out of a tight spot, whilst Cara Williams plays a lonely widow who sets her sights on Curtis.
Superb 1958 Stanley Kramer (“Not as a Stranger”, “Inherit the Wind”, “Judgement at Nuremberg”) racial drama/escape flick that although highly entertaining, is also a really powerful look at some of humanity’s worst and most pathetic traits. Even in the tense situation these two guys are in, Poitier and Curtis can’t help but squabble with one another. It really says something. It’s quite a rough, tough, and gritty film for something with such a social conscience. Kramer is a clever filmmaker, as this one works on multiple levels.
Tony Curtis isn’t exactly convincing as a Southern cracker, but accent aside, this is one of Curtis’ only genuinely good performances along with “Sweet Smell of Success”. There’s an irritability and sour quality to his performance that Curtis conveys well. This guy’s bitter, and you get the feeling he’s been that way for a long time. As impressive as Curtis is, Sidney Poitier for me is more interesting in performance and character. It’s not as showy as the Curtis role, but this guy’s also got a lot of anger and bitterness inside of him, he’s just not as explosive about it.
The supporting cast is pretty damn impressive too. Oscar-nominated Theodore Bikel is just OK as the lawman leading the hunt, gravel-voiced co-star Charles McGraw would’ve been even better in the part if you ask me. Claude Akins is pretty good as a bullying lynch mob leader, but it’s Lon Chaney Jr. who is most effective here. It’s perhaps his best-ever performance (alongside “High Noon”), and a performance you might not have thought he had in him. That Bikel was nominated for an Oscar and not Chaney is a crime if you ask me. I must say, though, that Chaney looks rather awful here. He seems to have aged a helluva lot in the 15 or so years between “The Wolf Man” and this film. I believe it’s called alcohol, and it’s a real shame that it helped destroy a career full of potential. Shirley Jones lookalike Cara Williams has a startling Oscar-nominated role as a lonely and needy widow with a kid. It’s an interesting performance and character, actually. She needs a man, and Curtis is kind of a man, so he’ll do. The funny thing? She’d be better off with Sidney Poitier, the much nicer of the two. But he’s black and she’s racist.
Extremely well-shot by an Oscar-winning Sam Leavitt (“Anatomy of a Murder”, “Pork Chop Hill”), this is one of those films that simply had to be shot in B&W. I mean, think about it. It’s the only thing that would make sense. The best thing about the entire film? At about 90 minutes, it gets off and running right away, says what it needs to, and gets out without overstaying its welcome.
Really efficiently done, and just all-round terrific stuff that works as both social commentary and exciting manhunt picture. The Oscar-winning screenplay is by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith, who both later scripted Kramer’s “Inherit the Wind”.