A self-avowed “message” picture, Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones deploys a potent symbol of American race relations: two convicts, one white and one black (Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier) are chained together when the truck taking them to prison turns over.
Both men harbour racist feelings, and at first, they want only to separate – but, appropriately enough in this allegory of American history, they cannot. Their unavoidable closeness makes them reach beyond stereotypes and angry words to get to know each other as individuals.
A robbery to get food goes wrong and the pair – much to the white man’s chagrin – are pursued by a mob eager to lynch them both.
Arriving at a farmhouse presided over by a lonely white woman, they finally get the means to break the chain.
Yet they do not go their own ways, even though the white woman tries to separate them.
A final dash for freedom through a swamp and then onto a freight train fails, and the men are recaptured.
Fine acting from both Curtis and Poitier gives life and intellectual force to the narrative, which could easily have descended into ineffective melodrama.
The Defiant Ones is perhaps the film that best captures the agenda of “realist” liberals in the 1950s, as American society attempted to come to terms with the fact of the African-American presence.
John “Joker” Jackson
Sheriff Max Muller
Captain Frank Gibbons
Lon Chaney Jr
Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer