GFF18 #6: The Defiant Ones (US 1958)

For the last few years, Glasgow Film Festival has offered free morning shows of mainly classical Hollywood films on each morning of the festival. These screenings in GFT1 are, not surprisingly, very popular, especially with older people who might not otherwise visit the festival. The films are selected for a specific thematic programme – this year ‘Rebel Heroes’. Each is given an introduction by Alan Hunter which is warmly received – Glasgow festival audiences are very generous in my experience.

The Defiant Ones is a film I’ve been trying to see for some time, so I greatly appreciated the opportunity offered by a GFF screening. Stanley Kramer productions are out of fashion these days and therefore rarely revived. Kramer was a producer and director who specialised in ‘social issues’ or ‘message films’ as they were often called. The messages were clear and the narratives were conventional in structure and used stars in the same way as mainstream Hollywood. This meant that the films won critical Oscars and attracted large audiences – but not necessarily the interest of cinephiles. The Defiant Ones was certainly one of the most impactful of Kramer’s films – he produced and directed from a script by Nedrick Young and Howard Jacob Smith. The script won an Oscar and a second went to cinematographer Sam Leavitt. There were another seven Oscar nominations for the film so it clearly drew mainstream critical acclaim.

Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) in the first part of the film is often supporting John ‘Joker’ Jackson who has a sore caused by the shackles

The Defiant Ones stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as two prisoners who escape in a road accident during transportation somewhere in the American south. It was not the practice to chain together black and white prisoners and the script passed this off as the warden’s joke. This was perceived as a script weakness by some critics but of course it was essential to build the narrative around two men shackled together who as one of the lawmen hunting for them remarks “will probably kill each other before we find them”. Theodore Bikel is solid as the lawyer=turned-sheriff who tries to constrain the police and volunteer deputies on the hunt. The script carefully makes him the elected official who is thoughtful about his role. A different character who explores a similarly difficult position is a small town community leader played by Lon Chaney Jr – himself an ex-prisoner – who helps the escapees.

Theodore Bikel as the sheriff who must constrain the posse who set out to catch the escapees

Lon Chaney Jr. in a role which is both ‘functional’ and ‘thematic’

Alan Hunter’s introduction mainly told us what is common knowledge on Wikipedia. Kramer had wanted to use Poitier for some time and he was undoubtedly a leading actor by 1958, though none of the films he had made were particularly big box office, many were well-received. However, he was also a suave figure and perhaps strange casting as a jailbird. The same might be said about the other potential African-American film actors of the time, e.g. Harry Belafonte or Brock Peters. Kramer wanted a star, even if an unknown might have been more intriguing. This is not to criticise Poitier who is very good, but simply to underline Kramer’s approach. Curtis was a replacement for Bob Mitchum who turned it down and Marlon Brando who was not available. I think Curtis matches Poitier despite again being an unusual choice.  He too, was ‘hot’ property at the time and it was good to see both names ‘above the title’.

Besides the casting, the main strength of the film is the succession of action scenes with the two men shackled together trying to overcome very difficult obstacles. Sam Leavitt won the Oscar for B+W cinematography, but overall the ‘feel’ of the film shot on Universal’s back lot seemed to me almost reminiscent of US TV series. The landscapes didn’t have the authenticity shooting on real ‘southern’ locations might have given them. The film was screened from a 35mm film in good condition. IMDB suggests it should be 1:1.85, but the projected in Glasgow looked like 1:1.66 to me.

Cara Williams as the abandoned farmer’s wife who waits on Joker and Noah

Whatever the message in 1958, I do think the film feels dated now. I’m disappointed because I want to applaud Stanley Kramer for trying to make serious films dealing with major issues. It occurs to me that, for my generation, the films of the late 1960s represented the anger of the civil rights protests and were more successful in delivering a message. I’m thinking of the African-American hero of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), played by Duane Jones. For succeeding generations the moments of resistance in the films of earlier generations lose their power – unless the film retains its artistic and cultural status. I’m not sure that’s the case with The Defiant Ones. One sequence in particular typifies this when the two men stumble across a small farm in an unlikely location. There is a wholesome young boy and his mother, played by Cara Williams, an actor I hadn’t seen before but seemed to me to be in the Ann-Margaret/Lee Remick mould. She is remarkably glamorous farmer’s wife (the farmer has conveniently disappeared). What follows is exactly as we might expect.

As a counter to these retrospective observations about what was an important film, I should add that my particular interest in seeing The Defiant Ones came from watching Speak Like a Child (UK 1998), a rare (and rarely seen) fiction film from the celebrated British (and African) documentarist John Akomfrah. In John’s film, a mixed race teenager in a children’s home sneaks out to the cinema and sees The Defiant Ones with his (white) friend. This is an important experience in developing his sense of identity.

One comment

  1. keith1942

    I think Roy’s comments are fair. However, the film needs to be seen in the context of 1958. The impact of the Civil Rights movement is more notable in the 1960s. Moreover. this title should be seen in the context of Hollywood films of the period. Douglas Sirk’s ‘Imitation of Life’ comes a year later and I have heard it highly praised. But I feel that it is inferior to the John Stahl version of 1934 in addressing the “race” issue. Martin Ritt’s ‘Edge of the City’ from 1957 is more effective in handling the issues than the Kramer film
    It is good to know there is a 35mm print available. Sounds like Glasgow is a good trip.

    Like

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