THE DEFIANT ONES (1958): an exceptional, good film
It’s that time you become self-aware that you have been doing too many superhero films. Or, at least I have. So it’s time for a drama. A gritty, excellent drama starring Sidney Poitier (one of my all time favorite actors) and Tony Curtis (one of my all time un-favorite actors) in a 1958 Stanley Kramer directed film.
So where do I begin? There are so many good things about this film. Sidney Poitier seems to never deliver a bad performance. He was great in Blackboard Jungle (1955), To Sir, with Love (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and even later in Sneakers (1992). The guy was just amazingly solid. It was a genuine loss when he passed away in 2022. Poitier plays Noah Cullen, an escaped convict chained to a racist jail-mate played by Tony Curtis.
The tension between the two is exceptional. Even though I have never liked a single film that I have seen him in, Curtis won me over with his performance as Joker Jackson. Joker comes off like a racist dirt bag that cares about two things: women and money. He uses the “N” word once against Cullen who tells him not to do it again. Cullen is quite a bit bigger than Joker, so I guess the warning comes off as viable. What is interesting is that he calls Noah by his last name, Cullen, but with the Southern accent it sounded like he was saying “colored”, which I don’t think was an accident at all.
The two escape their chain gang during the aftermath from a bus accident. They have to get away as soon as possible, knowing that the hound dogs will be coming after them. The dog handler wants to chase them with the hounds, but set lose Dobermans as soon as the pair of cons is located. The sheriff says no to that, wanting to be humane in his approach, but of course he is opposed by a state trooper who wants to use any means necessary. Good tension there also.
Cullen and Joker first end up in an excavation pit and have to cooperate to get out. It’s a tough go, but they manage to have enough sense to help each other (barely) knowing that if they don’t get out, they will both get dead. Their next stop is a turpentine camp where they are going to rob the camp store after everybody goes to bed. They are still chained however, and trying to get the tools they need to free themselves, they end up making too much noise and instead get caught. The guys in the camp all want to hang them except for Big Sam (played brilliantly by Lon Chaney Jr). Big Sam takes the first chance he has to help them escape, revealing that he was once a chain gang member himself.
They next happen upon a farm with a small boy and lonely widow. The boy finds them the tools to free themselves. Cullen is too tired to escape by himself that night and falls asleep sitting at the kitchen table. Joker, sharing glances with the widow, decides this is probably a good time to help himself to some lonely widow lovin'. In the morning, the widow tells Cullen how to find his way to the train to make his escape, and Cullen takes off.
Waking later than Cullen, Joker asks what happened to his chain mate. The widow maniacally tells Joker that she sent Cullen into the swamp where he will die, leaving no witnesses, so that she and Joker can escape and start their new lives. Having developed a bit of humanity by this point, Joker takes off to save Cullen, leaving the widow in the dust. It’s better than I am telling it.
They get to the train, but Joker is nursing a bullet wound, having been shot by the boy while Joker was escaping, and the convicts cannot make the train. That having been their last chance, the sheriff catches them and takes them back into custody. Both Poitier and Curtis were nominated for best actor awards that year for the Oscars, but neither won. They both should have.
And you know what to expect with a Kramer film: hard-hitting sociological issues and a well crafted story. One the Beach, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Champion, High Noon, The Wild One, The Caine Mutiny, are all Kramer films, and all exceptional.
IMDB gives this amazing, gritty drama a paltry 7.6, with 7 (as determined by my son Luke) being the threshold for good films. It's so much better than most of the modern films out there, and should really be watched by anyone who is interested in racial issues (along with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner). Deenur real rating 8.5.