Classic Film of the Week #16: The Defiant Ones (1958)
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I have a real fondness for the bold, somewhat uneven films that started coming out as the Production Code began to die; the films that pushed the boundaries of what film-goers had been able to see for decades, but were still testing the waters of what American films should look like going forward. The films in this category which explore social issues are particularly interesting, and The Defiant Ones is no exception, a daring film that explores what racism looks like when societal comforts are removed and all that's left is a pure, desperate desire for survival at any cost.
The Defiant Ones is directed by Stanley Kramer and stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. It's the story of two men who escape from a chain-gang, handcuffed to each other and therefor forced to stick together. This proves problematic because Noah (Poitier) is a black man, and John (Curtis) is a racist white man. As time goes on, and the environment becomes more rugged and dangerous, the pair are forced to confront their differences and figure out how to get along in the interest of survival and avoiding capture. Meanwhile, the local police begin a manhunt for the escaped convicts, but they're privately counting on the two violent men to kill each other off before they cause harm to anyone else.
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Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are two of the most suave, charismatic actors of the 1960s, but here they both dial the class way back to portray a pair of backwoods criminals, angry and desperate from spending years in a chain-gang and willing to do just about anything to survive and avoid going back. Interestingly, both characters are entirely defined by their race, in a way that's unusual in a film from 1958. Noah (Poitier) is a man who spent his whole life being taught to avoid conflict, to avoid ruffling white people's feathers; when John (Curtis) helps him in any way, he says thank you. This frustrates John, who hates the words "thank you" after working as a valet driver and having to thank his customers even when they treated him disrespectfully or denied him a tip. He believes that he deserves to be one of those rich men he used to serve: he's entitled to beautiful women and fancy cars, and fittingly, the crime that got him into the chain-gang was a theft gone wrong as he tried to force his way into that world. Noah, on the other hand, was incarcerated for attempted murder after he attacked a man who came to reclaim Noah's farm when he couldn't keep up with the payments. And so, John was punished for taking something that wasn't his, while Noah was punished for trying to keep what was his. This key difference sums up everything you need to know about these two characters, and the racial dynamics at play between them.
Indeed, more interesting than the two characters separately is the tenuous relationship they share. Poitier and Curtis are a great match, and it's fascinating to watch their dynamic evolve over the course of the film: it begins with anger and animosity, but as time goes on it begins to morph into a kind of reluctant respect--though still with some violent relapses. It's interesting to note that while John is a racist, he isn't one in the same sense as the characters in some other Poitier films like Edge of the City or In the Heat of the Night--or more accurately, he doesn't have the luxury to be. This film is a unique examination of how, in the face of survival, people are able to put aside prejudice: in normal life, John would likely never save Noah's life, and definitely wouldn't stand for the close physical contact the two men share as a result of being chained to each other, but when it's a matter of life and death, he's able to put these things aside, settling for slinging racial slurs to try and maintain his superiority--to mixed effect. Noah has heard it all before and keeps his cool through most of John's rantings, something he has in common with the more sophisticated characters Poitier would play down the line.
Regarding the the police manhunt, these scenes serve as a kind of comedy relief amidst the tense main plot. In particular, there's an amusing dog trainer who demands frequent rest-stops and water breaks for his dogs who are being used to track the fugitives, allowing John and Noah to gain a pretty impressive lead. There's also a more meaty story-line with the police chief, who isn't very motivated to find the two men--he doesn't consider them much of a threat, and certainly doesn't want any harm to come to them--but if he fails to catch them or if they cause any trouble while loose, he's sure to lose the upcoming election and be left with a law career that was already on the rocks when he accepted this much more reliable state job. While the primary focus is on John and Noah, and these police sequences aren't very necessary to the film--this is where my earlier comment about unevenness comes in--I did appreciate the film offering this alternate perspective on the situation. So many films ask us to root for the freedom of criminals, but don't examine the consequences this has for the lawmen who fail to bring them in.
Ultimately, what really makes this film special is the conclusion. John has the chance to get away scot-free with a beautiful woman, but when he finds out she's double-crossed Noah, he can't bear to go with her. It's clear that he's incredibly conflicted, but in the end, his experiences with Noah compel him to give this man the basic human decency of not being sent straight into a deathtrap. He goes after Noah, and the two men manage to find a train and very nearly make their escape on it, only failing because of John's gunshot wound--Noah makes his own sacrifice, choosing not to leave John to face the law alone. This begs the question: would Noah have made it out alive, and free, without John's help? He does fine in the swamp before John gets there, and he still would have heard the train and been able to get on it if he was alone. John's newfound sense of honor may actually have been both men's downfall, and you can't help wondering if the pair will come to regret his sacrifice when they have time to think back on their actions. Yet, even if John made the wrong decision practically, he does come out on top morally, and the image of the two men together, facing sure imprisonment yet both calm and strangely at peace, is a great one. Pictured below, it's one of those endings where I wonder if the film would have ended the same way if it came out 10 years later: it stands right on the line between perfect ending and Production Code-enforced ending. Even still, I really can't picture a more fitting conclusion: Noah's song and the image of the two men, calm and still for perhaps the only time in their hard lives--while the police chief looks on, knowing his career is saved at the expense of these two men's freedom--is a haunting and thought-provoking end to a brutal, yet moving piece of social film-making.
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The Defiant Ones is a film that tells a unique and compelling story with incredible simplicity, relying on the talents of its two leading men--and Poitier and Curtis certainly deliver. While there are moments in the film that might feel clunky or dated today, as a whole it has aged remarkably well, a 1950s examination of racism that is incredibly intimate and human, giving it an authenticity and relevancy that the more glamorous race-related films from this period just can't offer. The Defiant Ones comes highly recommended.