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The Defiant Ones - The Essentials

THE DEFIANT ONES (1958)
* Airs on TCM on Sunday, February 9 at 6 pm ET

SYNOPSIS

A blues-singing black man named Cullen and a belligerent white racist named Joker are chained together at the wrists and locked in the back of a truck carrying a load of convicts to prison during a heavy rainstorm. When the truck crashes, the chained duo manage to escape and take off running through the woods. Pursued by a sympathetic sheriff, a gung-ho state trooper, and a bloodthirsty posse leading a pack of hounds, the two come to blows over their racial differences and try desperately to break the chain that binds them. Joker wants to head south to hook up with a woman he knows and start living the life of "Charlie Potatoes," his name for a high-living man of style. Cullen, however, disparages Joker's dream of a better life and, seeking his own path to freedom, refuses to travel deeper into the South. Exhausted, filthy and exhausted from their attempts to escape detection, they find refuge with a young woman and her son on an isolated farm. But all the while, the posse is closing in on their trail.

Director: Stanley Kramer
Producers: Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: Nathan E. Douglas (Nedrick Young), Harold Jacob Smith
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Editing: Frederick Knudtson
Art Direction: Fernando Carrere
Music: Ernest Gold
Cast: Tony Curtis (Joker), Sidney Poitier (Cullen), Theodore Bikel (Sheriff Max Muller), Cara Williams (The Woman), Lon Chaney, Jr. (Big Sam), Claude Akins (Mac), King Donovan (Solly). BW-97m. Letterboxed.

THE LONG VIEW

Producer-director Stanley Kramer, who died in February 2001, was often at odds with the critical establishment. His most severe critics ofted rated his work as simplistic, aggressively liberal and with social and political themes exploited with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Yet, whatever may be said of Kramer as an artist, his best films were unique and timely for tackling sensitive, unpopular subjects during a period when most studios were churning out genre films and formula entertainments. Through a series of films - Home of the Brave (1949), The Member of the Wedding (1952), Inherit the Wind (1960), Pressure Point (1962), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967), even his all-star comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) - Kramer turned his lens on a range of ugly American traits (bigotry, ignorance, greed, racial violence) that were rallying points for the civil rights and counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and beyond. The central image of The Defiant Ones - a black man chained to a white man - may not hold the same power for us today, but in 1958 it was a shocking one, visually and symbolically.

A New York Jew who had been working in the motion picture industry since the 1930s, Kramer experienced prejudice first-hand while serving with the Army Signal Corps in World War II. "The captain told me at once he didn't like Jews, Hollywood Jews particularly, and he told me to apply for a transfer," Kramer said later in life. "But I had been commissioned directly from civilian life, so I couldn't be transferred out for a year. I had to stay with that man for a year!" The experience had a profound impact on Kramer and affected his later choices for subject matter as a filmmaker. After the war, he formed his own company, Screen Plays Inc., to produce prestigious lower-budget movies. The first one to get him significant attention was Home of the Brave (1949), based on Arthur Laurents' award-winning play about anti-Semitism in the Army. However, the focus of the story was changed to a black soldier subjected to abuse by the whites in his squadron. The film is noteworthy for being not only the first movie to explore the destructive nature of racism, but also for being the first Hollywood film to proceed from concept to release in a mere three months and the first to be planned, written, cast, and produced in absolute privacy.

Kramer would return to the theme of racism in later work, but never with such impact as The Defiant Ones. His two protagonists, both convicts, are forced to deal with their fear and hatred of each other in order to survive. While Sidney Poitier's prisoner is depicted as a victim of injustice and prejudice, his fellow escapee is more flawed and complex. In many ways, Joker, the poor, uneducated "white trash," is as much a victim of society and circumstance as Cullen. The central message of the film is that prejudice is born out of ignorance, and in gaining that knowledge, Joker and Cullen develop a bond that's not just a matter of simple acceptance but can be seen as a kind of love, especially in the final image of the black man cradling the wounded white man in his arms. And what's often overlooked is the way an even broader prejudice is at work in the story - a bigotry of class that shows how both men are regarded as little more than animals in a hunt.

Kramer and The Defiant Ones received extensive praise at the time of its release, and garnered a number of awards and nominations. Poitier and Curtis benefited greatly from the attention, too. Prior to this, Poitier had appeared in eleven previous pictures, mostly in supporting roles; The Defiant Ones made him a major star. He would go on to make many acclaimed films over the next 40 years (including a Best Actor Oscar win for Lillies of the Field, 1963) in a career that continues to this day. The Bronx-born Curtis had been making movies for 10 years before being cast by Kramer, and was a popular star despite being generally miscast in period adventure films. His performances in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and The Defiant Ones finally brought him the acting recognition he deserved. Both received their first Academy Award nominations for their work in this film; if they hadn't been pitted against each other on the Oscar ballots, either might have easily walked away with the trophy.

by Rob Nixon

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