Born in New York in 1913, Stanley Kramer was an American filmmaker, a producer and director who chronicled his troubled times even as he looked back to the history of his country and forward to what it might be if the lessons of the past were not learned, his films touching on the rise and ultimate fall of Nazism (Ship of Fools of 1965 and Judgement at Nuremberg of 1961), the threat of nuclear war (On the Beach of 1959) and race relations, both in the liberal city of San Francisco (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner of 1967) and in rougher terrain.
Originally released in the late summer of 1958, The Defiant Ones, now released on Blu-ray by Eureka, is the story of John “Joker” Jackson and Noah Cullen, shackled together during their transfer between prisons when the vehicle in which they are travelling overturns late at night on a rainy road; the other inmates recaptured, only Joker and Cullen are unaccounted for as they make their way towards the railroad where they hope they may be able to make their way out of the state.
Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier were both already major stars, Curtis a veteran of the United States Navy who became a leading man of comedy and action films such as The Vikings who was looking to expand into more challenging roles, which in short order would bring him the diverse projects Some Like it Hot, Operation Petticoat and Spartacus.
Poitier had established a strong background in theatre before his career took him to cinema where he had appeared in several films touching on race and racism in contemporary America in No Way Out and Blackboard Jungle while later roles would include A Raisin in the Sun, To Sir, With Love and In the Heat of the Night.
The screenplay of The Defiant Ones written by Harold Jacob Smith from a story by Nedrick Young, the two would collaborate again when they adapted the stage play Inherit the Wind for Kramer’s 1961 film adaptation, it is the characters of Joker and Cullen they focus on against a rolling backdrop of supporting players, a white man whose casual racism is so ingrained it is almost unconscious and the black man whose patience with playing nice has long since worn out.
Chained together, anything they do for each other is initially entirely out of self-interest; if one stumbles or falls ill, the other one will go down too, so they need to cooperate to survive, yet as a black man Cullen has far more to lose should they be captured, either by the police who pursue them with dogs or the local population who are unlikely to see beyond the colour of his skin should he trespass onto their property.
Among the supporting cast are Whit Bissell, well known to genre fans from Creature from the Black Lagoon, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I Was a Teenage Werewolf as well as his role as Station Manager Lurry of Star Trek‘s The Trouble with Tribbles, while Sheriff Max Muller is played by Theodore Bikel, actor, activist and musician, his later credits including Babylon 5 and Sergey Rozhenko, adoptive father of Worf on Star Trek The Next Generation.
Perhaps most interesting is Lon Chaney, Jr, who through the forties had starred in The Wolf Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Tomb, here in a significant cameo sans makeup as Big Sam, the only man who defends Cullen when most treat him differently than Joker even though both men are chained together in exactly the same circumstances, while to the police and their armed deputised men they are nothing more than the sum of their rap sheets of assault and battery and armed robbery.
Accompanied by an interview with critic Kim Newman discussing the film, he compares The Defiant Ones to three episodes of The Fugitive strung together, and there is an undeniable episodic structure to the film where the different encounters of the men never really come together into a single satisfying narrative though it did receive the Academy Award for best screenplay as well as a second for Sam Leavitt’s black and white cinematography.
Perhaps a result of the time in which it was made, as powerful as Curtis and Poitier’s performances are there is a feeling that much is left unsaid, that in order to guarantee production that Kramer held back in many aspects, that as angry as Cullen is he is holding back; had the film been made even a decade later, ten short years which saw the assassinations of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, the already justified fury of the defiant ones might have been of a different magnitude entirely.