When a prisoner transport crashes during a night-time storm, John ‘Joker’ Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) make their escape, chained together by the wrist. The director’s third feature, The Defiant Ones combines Stanley Kramer’s trademark liberal politics with a picaresque adventure that is deftly entertaining, tense and heartfelt.
Poitier’s most famous collaboration with Kramer was in the social comedy-drama Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, but it was The Defiant Ones where the pair first worked together. Kramer was in many ways the definition of a Hollywood liberal – privileged, white and concerned with social justice. Historically, his films have been somewhat undervalued, but in the era of McCarthy and Hollywood blacklisting, there was an admirable directness to the film maker’s approach to political messages.
As a jailbreak romp, The Defiant Ones weaves its social commentary through what is essentially an odd-couple comedy, throwing together a white racist and a black man to force them to work together. In this respect, the results are predictable – the white guy learns a lesson about prejudice, and wouldn’t you know it, they do learn to Just Get Along after all. But it’s the journey that sells the destination, and Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith’s witty screenplay and rock solid performances from Curtis and the always-reliable Poitier really do make us believe in it.
Helping in no small part is Sam Leavitt’s understated but effective cinematography. The opening scene, rain-soaked and in the dead of night, utilises negative black space beautifully, and the near-constant downpour throughout the film underscores the hangdog misery of Cullen and Joker. The sequence where the pair hide in a waterlogged pit is particularly tense, as well as emphasising the pair’s growing reliance on each other.
A terse exchange about Joker’s use of a racial epithet is as an effective an explanation of white privilege as any in modern cinema. Later, the scene where Cullen and Joker are nearly lynched by townsfolk brings home the constant danger that black people were (and to an extent, still are) in America. Kim Newman, in the disc’s supplementary interview, notes that the radio playing as the police hunt escapees is to remind contemporary viewers that the film is not set in the barbaric past, but in the present. Although the period setting of The Defiant Ones may no longer be contemporary, the issues it raises around privilege, the power of language and the enduring legacy of racism are no less relevant.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell