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  • Post last modified:July 19, 2022

The Defiant Ones: In Perfect Harmony


Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. Photo: United Artists

Robert Mitchum was offered the role of ”Joker” Jackson, one of two prisoners chained together in this film, but refused to do it. Over the years, a false rumor was started that Mitchum wouldn’t do The Defiant Ones because it required him to work with a Black actor. The real reason was that Mitchum didn’t buy the central premise. At the age of 14, he had been put in a chain gang in Georgia and he knew that in the segregated South a white man would never be chained together with a Black man. The star let his personal experiences get in the way of a great movie, because it doesn’t matter how unlikely the scenario is. At the time, The Defiant Ones was a perfect way to tackle racism.

Hunted by a posse
A transport of prisoners is making its way through the South, when suddenly the truck crashes through a barrier. Two men who are chained together, John ”Joker” Jackson and Noah Cullen (Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier), see a chance to escape and start running. The next morning, sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel) is part of a posse that starts hunting the two men, but everybody figures they won’t get very far. After all, one man is white and the other Black. How on earth could they ever get along?

This is true, at first. Neither man trusts the other and they disagree on where to run. Joker wants to go south but Noah refuses, knowing that because of his skin color he must go north. As they continue to try to evade the bloodhounds, both men realize they have to trust each other.

Kramer’s first “message movie”
Stanley Kramer’s first film as a director (after a very successful career as producer) was a run-of-the-mill epic called The Pride and the Passion (1957). But The Defiant Ones was something else altogether, Kramer’s first”message movie”. Co-written by Nedrick Young, who was blacklisted and thus had to use a pseudonym (Nathan E. Douglas), this film had one clear purpose: showing the world how people of different colors can work together on equal terms. To modern audiences, the reasoning behind the film and its many examples of racism may come across as somewhat simplistic, which is natural. The United States suffers from many problems, including racism, but it isn’t as obvious as in the 1950s, a time when the racist culture of the South was protected by the nation’s legal system.

The political ambition of Kramer and Poitier informed a film that became a landmark event.

Hollywood and Broadway were beginning to take notice of a young Black actor, Poitier, who was showing a lot of promise – and a willingness to be politically active, which led to him being blacklisted for a few years. In his autobiography, Curtis talked about how he felt Kramer was paying a lot more attention to Poitier than him… but Curtis also realized that this was a chance to do something different. It paid off; the political ambition of Kramer and Poitier informed a film that became a landmark event.

It turned Poitier into a star and also provided Curtis with one of the best roles of his career, as a man typically shaped by the poisonous culture of the South, but who gets to know the person chained to him and slowly begins to consider him a friend; there comes a defining moment when he has to choose between right and wrong, even if he ends up suffering. Poitier also brings depth to his character, a man with a tragic history that landed him in prison.

Sam Leavitt’s dark cinematography gives the film a realistic look; it helps create a sense of danger. Threats of lynching and betrayal offer different aspects of the ever-present racism. The men’s escape provides thrills, but the posse also gives the film a sense of humor, because of the jaded sheriff’s attitude and tensions within his group. 

The Defiant Ones 1958-U.S. 97 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer. Screenplay: Harold Jacob Smith, Nedrick Young. Cinematography: Sam Leavitt. Cast: Tony Curtis (John ”Joker” Jackson), Sidney Poitier (Noah Cullen), Theodore Bikel (Max Muller), Charles McGraw, Cara Williams, Lon Chaney, Jr. 

Trivia: Marlon Brando was considered for Curtis’s role. Remade as a TV movie, The Defiant Ones (1986).

Oscars: Best Original Screenplay, Cinematography. Golden Globe: Best Motion Picture (Drama). BAFTA: Best Foreign Actor (Poitier). Berlin: Best Actor (Poitier). 

Last word: “At first they said I was too good-looking for the part; I didn’t look enough like the a**hole ‘n*gger-hater’ I was supposed to play. So I wore a false nose and made myself look uglier. I felt pretty strongly about wanting to do that movie… I had a double named Bobby Hoy, an excellent stunt man who looked like me and did some of the water scenes, but most of it was done by me. It was a physically exhausting picture.” (Curtis, “Tony Curtis: The Autobiography”)

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