The Defiant Ones (1958)

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Directed by Stanley Kramer
Written by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith
1958/USA
Curtleigh Productions/Stanley Kramer Productions
Repeat viewing/My DVD collection
#345 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Law officier: How come they chained a white man to a black?

Sheriff Max Muller: The warden’s got a sense of humor.

Chained prisoners serve as a metaphor for race relations in the United States.  Fortunately, it’s a well-made, well-acted metaphor.

Prisoners are being transferred back to jail from their work on a chain gang.  The police van runs off the road, allowing Johnny ‘Joker’ Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Portier) to escape.  Problem is they are burdened by both their chains and racial animosity and distrust.  They will have to find a way to work together to reach freedom. Meanwhile, the local sheriff (Theodore Bickel) has problems controlling his team, many of whom would just as soon set the Dobermans on the convicts when and if they are found.

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The story follows the adventures of the escapees as they slog through rough terrain.  Will their budding friendship and a little outside help save them?  With Cara Williams as a lonely single mother.

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This could be obvious and just terrible in the wrong hands.  Fortunately, the writing is strong and the direction is taut.  Mostly, though, the film is carried by the outstanding performances of its leads.  Portier and Curtis make their characters much more than symbols of their races.  We are made to root for them while having a nagging suspicion that the Hayes Code will have its way in the end.

The Defiant Ones won the Academy Awards for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.  It was nominated in the categories of Best Picture; Best Actor (Portier); Best Actor (Curtis); Best Supporting Actor (Bickel); Best Supporting Actress (Williams); Best Director; and Best Film Editing.

Trailer

4 thoughts on “The Defiant Ones (1958)

  1. The Defiant Ones was a lot better than I expected it to be. As you say this could have gone terribly wrong in the wrong hands becoming way too literal. Instead it works so well in both the apparent story and in hte analogy. The ending is just great, they actually won their freedom. That is a very positive note.

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