The Defiant Ones (1958, Stanley Kramer)


This is a film about a pair of escaped convicts — one white, one black — attempting to survive in the South during the height of segregation while chained together after the vehicle they’re being transported in crashes. The two of them are portrayed by Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, two of the most appealing and gifted actors of the period even though both were frequently trapped in limited, facile parts. This gives them each a meaty role, redneck racist versus seasoned survivalist who’s tired of the white boy’s bullshit, and it’s a nifty if dated premise: forced to cooperate out of a mutual desire for escape, they have the nature of their relationship, which eventually evolves into a gruding respect, altered and repeatedly tested. How can this lose? Well, it’s directed by Stanley Kramer. Kramer taking the reins over a gritty thriller starring Poitier and Curtis is a bit like listening to Eric Clapton cover a Robert Johnson song: something so potentially sublime turned into such meandering, incompetent, self-aware pap. The only saving grace of The Defiant Ones is Sam Leavitt’s stark black & white photography, sharing the distinctively unflashy look of so many United Artists productions from this period. Otherwise, sheesh.

Kramer was a prestige fixture in his day, director of major Oscar bait pictures like Judgment at Nuremberg, On the Beach, Inherit the Wind, and the especially deplorable Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (also with Poitier). The Defiant Ones was his breakthrough, so we have it to blame in part for the director’s future crimes. Are the problems here inherent to the script? It’s difficult to say; nothing progresses in any manner you wouldn’t expect, really, with the inevitable attempted robbery of a store to keep abreast of basic needs and the resulting trouble; the infighting and discussion among the cops in pursuit; the brawls and calm conversation and mutual distrust; and the Hays Code-imposed pessimistic defeat of the broken-away men. Yet it’s also true that nothing in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, the best film of this sort ever made, wasn’t basically obvious from the beginning, but it moved along with such bracing humanity that every moment was a revelation. Kramer would prefer to hit us over the head, and the result is as crushingly obvious in not just its story points — there’s even a Labor DayLooper thing wherein they run into a kid and his mom falls in love with Tony Curtis, because of course — but its pacing and rhythm as a parody of Hollywood drama whenever it deigns to say something about controversial matters. The racial-strife odd couple reenacting The 39 Steps anticipate every Crash cliche. Poitier and Curtis move about like programmed paper dolls, emoting in the proper ways at the proper moments for maximum audience empathy; you can almost hear Kramer exclaiming to the audience, “See!? We’re all just alike really!”

We can in fact pare this film’s sense of subtlety down to one exchange of dialogue, not involving either of the two leads but two minor characters. Every time Kramer cross-cuts to the cops standing around “investigating” there’s this incessant generic “jazz” playing for no reason; this comes up in one such sequence:

“Watch how you play with those guns. They’re not toys.”
“You kiddin’? After all the huntin’ we’ve done together? It’s just like runnin’ rabbits!”
[appalled] “These are men!”
“Same thing!”
[frown] “Men and rabbits. Same thing.” [grave shaking of head] “It’s not the same thing!”

Kramer’s handling of this and of most if not all his future efforts is defined by his bizarre self-righteousness; taking the cue for his liberal vision of the social-problem picture from hoary old bullshit like Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, he stacks the decks so highly in order for us to appreciate the strife and hardship at the core of the lives of these two men that it becomes rather difficult to see any shades of gray that might make it actually compelling. In laying all of its concentration on the armchair perception of the injustice and terror in criminal life, the film reveals nothing — it’s as distanced and unfeeling as a newspaper article, almost as if its sole purpose is to wring entertainment from seeing people squirm and patting everyone on their back for being Conscious. Perhaps if one or both of these men were depicted as actually dangerous criminals instead of great placid actors shackled together, the film’s messages about racism, Jim Crow and poverty would resonate as something drawn from real life rather than a screenwriter (Harold J. Smith) and director with an eye toward relevance. It’s true, of course, that the institutions in this country are uniquely predisposed against people of color, and were even more so at the time Defiant was made, but the film’s sole audience then as now is those who already know that and want to see movies about it. They’re all to be shocked — shocked — that there is corruption and injustice in the South, but those feigned shaken heads and clucked tongues in service of a fictional story exhibit the dishonesty inherent to didactic storytelling and the intended response to it.

Everyone in The Defiant Ones sounds like they’re performing in someone’s dreadful social-problem stage play. The movie is blocked and composed like a weak episode of a TV anthology series. No one remembered to decide how to end it, so it doesn’t. It’s a big snooze of self-congratulation and sells my impression of Kramer as a tiresome, Oscar-collecting hack. This movie’s only 97 minutes and it took me three tries to get through it. This movie was nominated for Best Picture in 1958. Look it up, and weep for our nation. And true to form, the film did prove controversial, and many (though especially, it seems, white audiences) were moved by the notion that all we really need to do is just, y’know, get along. Who knows where we’d be now if Kramer hadn’t made that clear to all of us?

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