THE DEFIANT ONES—“They’ll probably kill each other before they go five miles” muses ‘Sheriff Max Mueller’ (Theodore Bikel). Just before that, when another cop wondered “How come they chained a white man to a black?”, Mueller’s deadpan ironic reply speaks volumes: “The warden’s got a sense of humor.” Producer-director Stanley Kramer slammed a 1958 home run with this intense and controversial drama, distilling the open wound of America’s racial divide down to two desperate men, one white, one black, their interdependence of literal bonding and entwined fates eventually wrenching antagonism into respect. They’re in the melting pot together and their survival saga spells out that—like it or not—we’re all in it together.
‘Down South’, USA (alas, still the ‘CSA’ to some). A truck accident results in the escape of two convicts. Surly ‘Noah Cullen’ (Tony Curtis) nabbed for theft, is a half-step up from ‘white trash’, yet fancies he can be “big-time Charlie Potata’s“. He’s chained together with ‘”Joker” Jackson’ (Sidney Poitier), up the river for assault; a tad easier-going than Cullen, but as a black man in a segregated society, packing his own lifetime of resentments. In charge of the search party, patient, low-key Sheriff Mueller seeks a peaceful outcome. But others in the posse and in the community at large raise the stakes from problematic to life & death.
The excellent screenplay by ‘Nathan E. Douglas’ (actually the blacklisted Nedrick Young) and Harold Jacob Smith and Sam Leavitt’s gritty b&w cinematography took Oscars. Nominations went up for Best Picture, Actor (Curtis and Poitier), Director, Supporting Actor (Bikel), Supporting Actress (Cara Williams) and Film Editing. Captured for a lean $778,000, producer Kramer’s investment returned ten times over, the gross of $7,900,000 taking 27th place for the year. Most critics applauded: along with On The Beach and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World it’s Kramer’s best directing work, opening a strong run (Inherit The Wind, Judgment At Nuremberg, Ship Of Fools, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?) until he later stumbled with The Secret of Santa Vittoria and several subsequent duds. *
The Subtextians who vent among us would later insist on reading their own issue proclivities into how the brotherhood-under-a-microscope theme beneath the chase plot carried more messages than what was surface obvious, as if the drama and technique weren’t sufficiently gripping on their own.
Curtis and Poitier, both 31, had started at roughly the same time. Each had a few strong roles in their jacket (Poitier’s No Way Out, Curtis’ Sweet Smell Of Success), Curtis at the time a much larger fan following. Their team-up in the meaty parts of Cullen and Joker—laced with vivid confrontations, raw emotional displays and dynamic physical action— marked signal achievements for each. Bikel’s rational Mueller serves as counterpoint, allowing some welcome moments of wry humor into the escalating tension. Insinuatingly sensual Williams aces some surprising edges to her isolated attention-starved character. Battered and worn but enlivened, Lon Chaney Jr. has a small but memorable part as ‘Big Sam’, a sympathetic camp overseer who holds a lynch mob at bay.
With Charles McGraw (in top form as a gung-ho state trooper), Claude Akins (a vicious ‘good ol’ boy’), Lawrence Dobkin, King Donovan (frettin’ ’bout his “dawgs”), Kevin Coughlin (give a kid a .22), Whit Bissell, Carl Switzer (a fun running gag with a transistor radio) and Ned Glass. Try and quickspot Carroll O’Connor, 33, uncredited in a bit part. 97 minutes.
* In his career as producer and director, Stanley Kramer aimed to highlight social issues through a compassionate lens that was also and foremost entertaining. One and a half hours in a theater didn’t magically erase centuries of the country’s racial divides, so according to Kramer bashers we schmucks not only shouldn’t like it but perforce must damn its audacious maker to burn in sneering condemnation for eternity. Er…why? Because he tried to do what hardly any other industry peers of his time did? Because legions of esteemed actors, hosts of notable film societies and festivals, and numerous governments worldwide saluted him? Or was it because a tiny coterie of “influential” critics (says WhoTF, exactly?) opted to partake in a reputation-smearing pile-on? 98% of ordinary movie lovers could give a formation of flying f’s about verdicts from self-elected judges on All Things Artistic, Social, Cultural and Historical. The decades-long Stanley Vendetta, practically Balkan, is so past Old it’s Ancient.
Controversy and carpers flail-kicked to the side, at the very least ‘Defiant‘s creation and reception was a career boost for many involved. Curtis—Tony and wife Janet Leigh were executive producers—had a banner year: along with his first (and only) Oscar nomination he scored hits The Vikings, King’s Go Forth and The Perfect Furlough. Poitier’s shared billing and Oscar nomination were firsts. Those coups, his commanding yet warm presence and agile range and depth of expression secured him rank status as a star who’d arrived, one who went from admired to beloved. His stunt double here was future Hogan’s Heroes prisoner Ivan Dixon: he’d had a small part in Poitier’s previous Something of Value. Multitalented folk singer/activist Bikel, 32, had logged 19 small roles in films (and much TV) since 1947—Kramer had just used him in the epic The Pride And The Passion—this was his sole Oscar nomination in a 60-year career. It was also Cara Williams one Academy Award shot; the 31-year old teaser had been in films since 1941 and was later a hit on TVs Pete and Gladys (I had a kiddie crush on her). At 96, she passed away in 2021.
Lastly, for old fave Lon Chaney Jr.—though he continued to show up in B-pictures until 1971, this marked his last really good role. Kramer had previously given him two plum cameos, in High Noon and Not As A Stranger. In his three scenes for The Defiant Ones, Lon, 51, is most defiantly fine. But then disciples of The Wolf Man knew that already.