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Man, I didn’t pull you out. I kept you from pulling me in.

The Defiant Ones
(1958)

(SPOILERS) The progenitor of the buddy movie – most notably, 48Hrs took the template and freshened it up, with laughs rather than social commentary emphasising the racial divide – The Defiant Ones certainly couldn’t be called subtle in its conceit. But that upfront quality is key to its success… and Best Picture Oscar nomination; the Academy still loves to be led by the nose with regard to issue-based material.

Fugitives from a prison truck mishap, Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) and Joker Jackson (Tony Curtis) attempt to outrun the pursuing posse, heading for a train that promises to take them to safety. There’s just a little problem en route that they’re at each other’s throats, of course, Joker manifesting as an undiluted racist who uses the n-word in their first exchange and habitually calls Noah “boy”. Because they’re chained together, though – Robert Mitchum turned the role down on the basis of realism, that blacks and whites would never be chained together in the South – they have to learn to help each other, and so, inevitably develop tolerance and finally respect through a series of trials and hardships (surfing rapids, climbing out of a clay pit, a lynching, with some impressive actual stunts performed by the leads along the way).

The material is much too obvious to get by now (you’d have to tone it down to Green Book levels of mutual mistrust to get a free pass, and even then…), but Stanley Kramer’s film remains potent on a key, core level: dramatic heft. The director’s oeuvre can often look not a little earnest with the benefit of hindsight – albeit, he was often called out even at the time – but the best of them share this quality. It helps considerably that The Defiant Ones’ convicts are performed with such conviction. Curtis is often characterised post- his Some Like It Hot persona, the point at which he began, by dint of broad comic playing there, to descend into caricature. Here, he’s never less than compelling, even if he can’t entirely establish the veneer of a hardened con. It’s a role that, while it inevitably leads to a point of relieving Joker of an entirely vilifiable status, doesn’t go in for massaging a rising star’s ego. The points regarding prejudice are often crudely made – Joker’s prolonged anecdote about parking cars – and the emphasis that he is, relatively, a good man comes at the expense of revealing Cara William’s desperate deserted housewife to be the most coldly ruthless character in the picture (and that includes the lynch mob), but Kramer doesn’t wrap the character’s “progress” (if you will) in a neat bow, or speech.

Joker: You calling me a weasel?
Cullen: No, I’m calling you a white man.

Poitier’s performance is the more interesting, because it’s in stark contrast to the more genteel types of the heyday of his stardom (or, as his Wiki page notes, he “began to be criticised for being typecast as over-idealised African-American characters who were not permitted to have any personality faults”). Noah represents a much rawer role than we tend to associate with the actor, and the performance consequently feels much fresher than we might expect. It’s notable that, while they receive equal billing – reputedly at Curtis’ insistence, though Curtis does rather go to town on how instrumental he perceives himself as being to the picture’s success – the obligatory romantic subplot is at the expense of his role, meaning that he’s side lined for a significant period.

There’s good support dotted throughout, particularly Lon Chaney Jr as an ex-fugitive who defends them and releases them from the lynch mob, and Theodore Bikel as the fair-minded, moderate sheriff. Both Bikel and Williams were Oscar nominated, as were Curtis and Poitier, in the first lead nomination for a black actor. Out of eight nominations, including Best Picture, The Defiant Ones won two, for Black and White Cinematography and Original Screenplay; the latter as noted, is more uneven than its victory may suggest, but then the reward was for the message rather than the delivery. There’s a sense with the picture that, because it’s such an obvious premise, it almost writes itself, always a danger since the social conscience-driven movies of yesteryear can appear painfully ill-conceived with hindsight. But if you can get past the lack of nuance and occasional clumsiness of the execution, enjoying it for Kramer’s foregrounding rather than in spite of it, and that may be a big if, The Defiant Ones retains an appreciable impact. 


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