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USA 1958
Directed by
Stanley Kramer
96 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

The Defiant Ones

The Defiant Ones is characteristic of 1950s American Left “social conscience” films with co-screenwriter Nathan E. Douglas being in real life HUAC black-listed Nedrick Young who wrote the original story (he and co-writer Harold Jacob Smith appear as the truck drivers in the opening scene).  The issue here is racism with the film using the device of a pair of convicts, one black, Cullen (Sidney Poitier) and one white “Joker”  (Tony Curtis) chained together escaping while being transported to prison. Unsurprisingly, starting off with knee-jerk hostility towards each other they gradually form a bond of friendship.

The film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar whilst Theodore Bikel and Cara Williams picked up nominations in the Supporting Actor/Actress categories as respectively a sympathetic sheriff trying to keep his band of hot-headed deputies and Charles McGraw's state trooper in check, and a lonely single mother who identifies with Joker’s dreams of freedom.  And although there are a few too obviously studio-created exteriors Sam Leavitt’s black and white photography well suits the heavily symbolical text.

Although as a film it is a rather heavy-handed and stagey vehicle for its message, if you like this school of American film-making (the best known examples of which range from Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront (1954) to Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957) it is a worthwhile effort.

Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier who received Best Actor Oscar nominations are an improbably handsome pair of chain gang members but both give strong performances with Poitier (who would work with Kramer again on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, 1967) embodying the kind of passionate argument for racial equality that he would deliver many times in his career.




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