Stanley Kramer is one of those old school filmmakers who directed several films that were acclaimed when they were originally released but who tends to be dismissed by contemporary film critics. Kramer specialized in making films about social issues and he deserves to be applauded for attempting to look at issues that Hollywood, at that time, would have preferred to ignore. However, as Mark Harris points out in his excellent book Pictures At A Revolution, Kramer started out as a producer and, even after he started directing, he never lost his producer sensibility. As a result, a Kramer film would typically address issues that were guaranteed to generate a lot of free publicity but, at the same time, Kramer would never run the risk of truly alienating his audience by digging too deeply into those issues. As a result, Kramer’s films have come to represent a very safe and middlebrow version of 50s and early 60s style liberalism.
Now, I have previously reviewed 4 Stanley Kramer films on this site and I have to admit that I was somewhat dismissive of most of them. I felt that Ship of Fools was shallow. I thought that Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner collapsed under the combined weight of a self-satisfied script and Kramer’s refusal to let Sidney Poitier’s character be anything other than idealized perfection. R.P.M. is a guilty pleasure, specifically because Kramer was so out-of-touch with the film’s subject matter. I did give Judgment at Nuremberg a good review, describing it as one of Kramer’s rare films that still holds up today.
And now, I’m going to give another Kramer film a good review.
Kramer’s 1958 film The Defiant Ones features a classic Kramer situation. White Joker (Tony Curtis) and black Noah (Sidney Poitier) are both prisoners in the deep south. Joker is an unrepentant and violent racist while Noah … well, Noah is Sidney Poitier. He’s determined, he’s not afraid to speak his mind, and most of all, he’s dignified. That’s not meant to be a complaint about Poitier’s performance in The Defiant Ones. In the role of Noah, Poitier has a great screen presence and it’s impossible not to root for him. Whereas Curtis tends to chew up every piece of scenery that he gets nears (and, again, that’s not really a complaint because Curtis’s overacting is totally appropriate for his character), Poitier keeps the film grounded.
When the prison bus that is transporting them crashes, Joker and Noah are able to escape. Fleeing on foot, they make their way through the wilderness and attempt to hide from the police. As quickly becomes obvious, Joker and Noah hate each other but, because the sheriff had a sense of humor, they have also been chained together. In other words, they’re stuck with each other and, in order to survive, they’re going to have to learn to coexist.
No, it’s not exactly subtle but it works.
As a filmmaker, Kramer was never known for being visually inventive and, as a result, his films often had to resort to heavy-handed monologues to make their point. But, in The Defiant Ones, the chains act as a great visual symbol for race relations in America. Joker and Noah literally can’t escape from each other and they have to work together if they’re going to survive. The chains make that obvious and, as a result, this is the rare Kramer film where nobody has to give a big speech to get across Kramer’s message. As a result, The Defiant Ones preaches without ever getting preachy.
Though the film is dominated by Poitier and Curtis, it also features some excellent supporting work. Lon Chaney, Jr, for instance, has a great cameo as world-weary man who helps the two convicts in their flight. Cara Williams is surprisingly poignant as a lonely, unnamed woman who tries to both protect Joker and get rid of Noah. And finally, there’s Theodore Bikel, playing the role of Sheriff Max Muller. Max is the most surprising character in the film, the head of a posse that’s set out to recapture Noah and Joker. As opposed to most of his men, Max is a humane and caring man who struggles to control the more bloodthirsty men who are serving under him.
Message films tend to get dated rather quickly but The Defiant Ones holds up surprisingly well.