Filmsite Movie Review
The Defiant Ones (1958)
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The Defiant Ones (1958) is a swift and exciting dramatic action-crime film, known for its symbolic and memorable image of two escaped convicts (Joker and Cullen), one white and one black. The two were tied together by 29 inch long shackles, and faced a hostile posse of townspeople and authorities, a lynching mob, barking bloodhounds, and a swamp. As they struggled together, they slowly began to accept each other. The tagline described their plight: "They couldn't like each other less. They couldn't need each other more."

According to Pixar’s John Lasseter, the relationship in Toy Story (1995) between Woody and Buzz Lightyear was modeled after Joker and Cullen.

Liberal director-filmmaker Stanley Kramer was well-known for directing heavy-handed, social issues dramas, including this "message movie" about racial tolerance and equality - in addition to Inherit the Wind (1960) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). Other important Kramer-directed works included: On the Beach (1959) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). He also produced Champion (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), The Men (1950), the acclaimed western High Noon (1952), The Wild One (1953) (uncredited), and The Caine Mutiny (1954) (uncredited).

From its nine nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director), The Defiant Ones was the recipient of only two Oscars: Best B/W Cinematography (it marked Sam Leavitt’s only win in his first of three nominations), and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen.

Tony Curtis received his first (and only) Oscar nomination as Best Actor, and Sidney Poitier also received a Best Actor nomination (his first of two career nominations), although both lost to David Niven for Separate Tables. Poitier's nomination was the first time a male black actor received a nomination for a competitive Oscar. The original story by blacklisted scriptwriter Nedrick Young (credited as Nathan E. Douglas), who had refused to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, was adapted by Harold Jacob Smith. Just six weeks before the Academy Award nominations were made, the Academy revoked its long-standing anti-Communist rule that people who testified to being Communist or who had refused to testify were not eligible for Oscars. When the film won its nomination for the Best Screenplay Oscar, director Kramer boasted: "At least we beat the blacklist."

There were a number of other inferior TV movie remakes, and one blaxploitation film:

  • Black Mama, White Mama (1973), with female leads Pam Grier and Margaret Markov
  • The Defiant Ones (1986), starring Robert Urich and Carl Weathers
  • Jailbirds (1991), with female leads Phylicia Rashad and Dyan Cannon
  • Fled (1996), starring Stephen Baldwin and Laurence Fishburne

It has been noted as the last film (before his death) of Our Gang's Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer - who portrayed the annoying character of Angus, one of the civilian members of the pursuit group who was always identified as having a blaring transistor radio hanging around his neck.

The Story

The film opens on a dark night of torrential rain in the South in the 1950s, as a truck is transporting chain gang prisoners. Two of the prisoners who are chained together, seated in the back, are:

  • Johnny "Joker" Jackson (Tony Curtis). a bigoted Southern white (Caucasian) convict imprisoned for armed robbery; a skilled auto transmission worker, from a family with a bible-thumping father; a dreamer who pictures himself wealthy and popular on the outside - known in slang as "Charlie Potatoes" (as "the man with the don't have to bow down to nobody")
  • Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier), a strong black convict, cooly defiant, incarcerated for assault and battery - for almost beating a white man to death when a gun was pulled on him; in the truck, he is singing the blues classic spiritual "Long Gone"; once married with a 5 year-old child when he left home, often angered that he was always told to "Be nice"

When Jackson orders the "nigger" to shut up, Cullen lashes back: "You call me nigger again, Joker, and I'm gonna kill ya!" Just then, their truck is sideswiped and crashes over a guard rail barrier. Nobody is killed, although Jackson and Cullen are able to escape from the wreckage.

The next morning, a pursuit is headed up by local "humanitarian" Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), liberal, compassionate and non-chalant but feeling pressured by the governor during an election year to quickly find the fugitives. He is accompanied by state troopers, deputized redneck civilian volunteers, and penned-up, high-strung vicious Dobermans and bloodhounds pampered by Solly (King Donovan). Muller makes it clear to Lou Gans (Whit Bissell) that they are not hunting rabbits but human beings: "It's not the same thing." He is not intent on killing the two escapees who have a 12-hour lead, and is often in conflict with over-zealous, brutish police Captain Frank Gibbons (Charles McGraw) who wishes to capture them either alive or dead.

Allegedly, the two cons are chained together because Warden Comisky had "a sense of humor." The Warden also said "not to worry about catchin' 'em. They'll probably kill each other before they go five miles." The Warden's words are prophetic - the two Southern fugitives instantly display racial animosity toward each other, expressing strong disagreement, and prickly tempers.

Johnny and Cullen face tremendous difficulties during their flight, mostly from their own mutual hatred, belligerence, and bigotry toward each other. They also disagree on whether to flee to the South to Pineville (which would be dangerous for "a colored man"), or flee to the North, where Cullen had once worked at a turpentine mill. However, they also face environmental challenges, including incessant rain, mud in a deep clay pit or ditch (into which they jump to avoid detection), and swollen rushing rivers. Little by little, they are forced to overcome their racial animosity and rely on each other to survive as reluctant partners (Johnny stands on Cullen's shoulders to get out of the pit). After crossing a dangerous fast-flowing river when Cullen almost drowned and is saved by Johnny, the two exchange more harsh words with each other:

Cullen: "I almost... swallowed half that river. Thanks."
Johnny: "What for?"
Cullen: "For pullin' me out."
Johnny: "Man, I didn't pull you out. I kept you from pullin' me in."

The convicts manage to kill a frog, and as they devour it over a fire (how did they start a fire with the drenching wet conditions, and often light cigarettes with matches?), Johnny advises Cullen to be less sensitive about racial epithets ("You're just too sensitive, man...You gotta take things as they are. You can't keep fighting 'em"). Cullen is particularly incensed when Johnny continually calls him "boy", and asserts that Johnny has been racist since birth. However, Johnny retorts that calling him the N-word is justified, and that he didn't make the 'white man's' rules:

"Well, that's what you are, ain't it? It's like callin' a spade a spade...That name sure bugs you, don't it? Well, that's the way it is, and you're stuck with it, 'cos I didn't make any rules."

When the two arrive at the turpentine camp, they view the "company store" supplied with tools and food, and break in through the roof to steal supplies, but the sound of their crashing to the floor and knocking over a large storage unit alerts the whole area. They are captured after assaulting one of the townsmen and Mack (Claude Akins) threatens to lynch the two men, although Big Sam (Lon Chaney, Jr.) steps in and halts the bloodthirsty injustice after shouting down the townsfolk for wanting to commit murder. He promises to lock them up and deliver them to the authorities the next morning. However, Big Sam sympathetically releases the two convicts to escape in the middle of the night - after showing the scars on his wrist that he was an ex-con himself.

Eventually in their flight, the convicts come across a young pre-adolescent boy named Billy (Kevin Coughlin) who was hunting. He takes them back to his isolated farm home to meet his single mother - needy, lonesome ("empty inside") and love-starved (Cara Williams), and abandoned eight months earlier by her husband. As she prepared a meal for them, Billy searches for a chisel and hammer to break their chains off their wrists. She informs them that nearby, they could catch a train the next afternoon at 1 pm, when it slows down climbing a ridge. She then cares for Jackson's infected wrist, and gives him a clean shirt the following morning - after an interlude that suggests they had sex. The opportunistic mother is infatuated with Johnny and schemes to escape her lonely life by running off with him to New Orleans and Mardi Gras, or Rio - anywhere but the South (and enroute dropping Billy off with relatives in Cumberland).

Cullen realizes that he has a better chance running on his own rather than with the weakened Johnny. A plan is devised - Johnny and the mother will pretend they are husband and wife and flee in her car, while Cullen is given directions to the train - using a shortcut saving a few hours of time through the swamp. After Cullen races off, she admits that she lied to him ("They ain't gonna catch him, 'cos he ain't never gonna get out of that swamp alive"). The swamp was a deadly route, with impenetrable bogs and quicksand. Her double-crossing idea was to prevent Cullen from being captured and possibly ruin her intentions with Johnny to get away with her in the big city ("We could go dancin', and eat in restaurants, and go to shows. You could start a whole new life.").

Furious at being deceived and betraying Cullen, Johnny yells back at her: "You don't even know me!...You don't even know my name." She pleads with him to reconsider, and help her escape her worthless life: "From the mud gumbo, and the loneliness...Oh, Johnny, I'm beggin' ya! Oh, please take me with ya! Don't leave me here, Johnny, please..." As Johnny flees out the door to chase after Cullen, Billy shoots him in the shoulder. When Johnny catches up to Cullen, he reveals: "That woman told you wrong." He explains her rationale for lying - she feared that if Cullen was caught, he would squeal. The authorities arrive and question the woman, asking if the fugitives have taken anything. Uncooperative, she replies knowingly (implying that she had sex with Johnny): "Nothin' you could put 'em in jail for."

The final sequence is the most memorable. The two men pursue an approaching freight train to escape to freedom. Cullen is able to get onto one of the moving cars, and locks hands with his white companion (a memorable image of black and white hands and arms locked together), but he cannot pull the wounded Johnny up onto the moving train, as Johnny yells out: "I can't make it! I can't make it!" So he sacrifices his own freedom and falls back off the train onto the ground. Both are exhausted.

In their final few moments of freedom, they share a cigarette, reflect back ("We gave 'em a helluva run for it, didn't we?"), and Johnny admits: "Charlie Potatoes. I'm mashed potatoes now." Cullen defiantly sings the blues classic "Long Gone" as the sounds of bloodhounds on their trail closing in on them are heard in the distance. By himself, Sheriff Muller comes up to the two men, finding Johnny resting in his buddy Cullen's arms.