Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Defiant Ones (1958)

Director Stanley Kramer's drama about cons on the run still packs a punch more than 50 years later after its release.

This 1958 release, just Kramer's third feature, earned nine Academy Award nominations including best picture, director and actor for leads Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier. This black and white production scooped up a pair of Oscars for cinematography and top screenplay.

The Defiant Ones wastes little time launching its story. A truck carrying convicts is involved in a collision at night during a heavy rainfall.

No one is killed, but two cons - John 'Joker' Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) escape. The pair, fueled by racial tensions, hate each other. They came close to trading blows before the truck goes over an embankment. They're shackled together. "The warden has a sense of humour," offers Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel) about why the two men are linked by a chain.

Jackson and Cullen have a good headstart thanks to the weather and a delayed search. While tension between the two still simmers, Muller has his own nemesis to deal with. State police officer Capt. Frank Gibbons (Charles McGraw) has his own ideas about how the search should be done. Gibbons is eager to sign on local men eager to hunt down the criminals. He's a little more liberal with how to use the search dogs. Muller is in an election year. If he can't find the wanted men, he could pay a price at the polls. His edginess increases as the search drags on.

Jackson wants to head south. Cullen figures his best chance is to head north where a black man won't look out of place. Their hatred for each other begins to temper. They need each other to succeeed. Cullen and Jackson rely on each other to get out of several tight situations including crossing a river with a strong current and trying to escape a muddy pit.

The Defiant Ones keeps offering viewers unexpected twists in its story. When the cons are caught trying to break into a store, a cold-blooded Mack (well done, Claude Atkins) wants to lynch them. Jackson and Cullen find an ally in another con, Big Sam (Lou Chaney, Jr.). Later, the pair cross paths with a young boy, Billy (Kevin Coughlin) and his mother (Cara Williams). She and Jackson are attracted to each other, but the mother also has an agenda of her own that will draw Jackson and Cullen even closer togehter.

The manhunt closes in on the fugitives. A train to freedom is nearby. The Defiant Ones keeps audiences guessing about the pair's fate until its last moments.

Curtis and Poitier both shine as men who've experienced rough pasts and are quick to fits of rage. Bikel is a low-key law enforcement leader who wants to find the cons, but is more measured in his approach to justice than others. Williams is trapped in a life-long prison of her own.

Films like this, with minimal special effects and accompanying soundtrack, always impress me. Bigger and noisier isn't always better. The Defiant Ones is a taut film packed with very fine performances. Watch it.

RATING: 9/10

FATAL FACTS: The Defiant Ones is the final screen appearance of Carl Switzer. He was Alfalfa in The Little Rascals shorts. Switzer was murdered in 1959.

Kevin Coughlin also died tragically. Internet Movie Database reports he died when he was struck by a speeding driver in 1976. He was 30.

The very first screen appearance for Claude Atkins, although he wasn't credited, was in From Here to Eternity.

No comments: