Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Defiant Ones (1958)

I believe I have mentioned this before, so apologies for repeating myself, but I cannot stress too much how much I appreciate the wonderful surprises the List provides. Take this movie, “The Defiant Ones” by Stanley Kramer, I had absolutely no expectations going into it, but it has proven a most satisfying movie to watch with plenty of gems and food for plenty of thinking.

It is such a simple story and a trivial one to boot. Two convicts escape from a prisoner transport and are hunted throughout the movie by the police. And that is about it. I have watched my share on prison break movies, good ones and bad one and those really terrible, so you would think there is nothing much to it, but as is often the case with movies that are truly excellent the real story is actually something else altogether.

Joker Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) are two convicts who quite unexpected get a ticket to freedom when their prisoner transport crashes and they are able to walk away. Trouble is they are chained together by the wrists with heavy irons and they despise each other. Joker is white and Noah is black and though they both belong to the bottom of society they are filled with bigotry and prejudice against each other. They are hunted by the local sheriff who is convinced that they will not need their heavy artillery (state police and killer dogs) as the two convicts will probably kill each other first.

I am not American and as such is unfamiliar with the finer details of American history, but it is not difficult to guess that this movie is an analogy on the way the different races in America are tied together and will have to work it out. As such Joker and Noah are White and Black in symbolic terms. This becomes clear through the themes of the dialogue which must have resonated with it audience in its time (and judging by media coverage does even today). Joker and Noah are on a journey together, away from their pursuers, but just as much on a journey to discover each other as human beings. Telling their stories goes a long away, but it is more than that. It is the transformation of stereotypes to real persons and to find out that this person is not so terribly different from yourself. Even when the chain is removed they remain connected as is told in one of the most striking scenes of the move where Joker, shot in the shoulder is having trouble keeping up and Noah cries that he is dragging the chain, long after it has been removed.

Noah and Joker may be caught in the end, they had to, this is 1958, but in a real sense they have won their freedom as they have been set free from the shackles of racism and bigotry. Now they are together by choice, not by chains.

I find that incredibly beautiful and poetic.

This movie shines in its dialogues. Most poignantly between Noah and Joker as told above, but two other dialogue are remarkable. Pursuing the convicts is a mixed band of policemen, deputies and the local sheriff. While the deputies are mainly in it for the thrill the sheriff (Theodore Bikel) and the captain (Charles McGraw) has an interesting discussion going. The captain keep insisting on the iron fist. Killer dogs, state police, shooting to kill, whereas the sheriff, whom we learn is a former lawyer, represents a far more humane line. While his line may seem weak and insufficient it is certainly enough for the job at hand and as we learn to see the convicts as people we get to appreciate his approach. I cannot help thinking there is a political message here as well albeit not as poignant as the racial theme.

Racial is definitely the dialogue between Joker and the lonely woman (Cara Williams) they meet. She lives alone with her son in the middle of nowhere and Joker seems to be her ticket out. She completely disregard Noah and it does not even occur to her to consider him a person. It may well be that her overt racism is what is opening Jokers eyes, but I like to think that that happens even before this encounter. The woman seems sweet and charming, but there are a lot of things wrong here. Besides the racism she is willing to abandon her son and soon it is clear that Joker is nothing more than a ticket. What she represents is escape, a fantasy that is ultimately wrong, useless and cruel.

I am reading a lot into this movie and it is possible I am reading too much into it, but then again I get the feeling there is even more to find and that makes me excited. I have not stopped thinking about it since I finished it.

Back on the surface of the movie it is a great joy to see such great actors like Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis at their best. I know there will be a lot more of them coming up and that is an exciting thought.

Highly recommended.



  1. Glad you enjoyed it so much. I thought the idea of them chained together was a good one and I gave the film a high rating. I was entertained from start to finish. I agree with your interpretation, an allegory of American history, blacks and whites both racist and trying to find a way to co-exist. The closeness means they see something besides the stereotype. A timeless movie.

    1. It deserves a high rating and I agree it is surprisingly timeless. In this case it relates to America, but it could have been anywhere else with this sort of trouble.

  2. I saw this years ago and liked it a lot. Your review makes me hope it comes up soon in the rotation!

    1. I am sure it will, Bea. You blaze through the year and before you know it it will come up. Definitely something to look forward to.