Classic Film Review: “The Defiant Ones” (1958) hold up a lot better than expected

Some films achieve “classic” status and even become pop culture shorthand, but eventually find themselves dismissed as overly-earnest, “of its time,” or even “self-parody.”

More than one Stanley Kramer production of the ’50s on into the ’70s has suffered that fate. A self-conscious/socially-conscious filmmaker, it’s hard to think of anybody in the modern cinema that who would own that label — maybe Spike Lee, and perhaps one day Jordan Peele.

Kramer took on “Inherit the Wind” and “On the Beach” and “Judgement at Nuremburg,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Ship of Fools” as a director. He produced the disaffected generation on wheels B-movie classic “The Wild One,” the Hollywood Blacklist-bashing Western “High Noon” and “The Caine Mutiny,” a myth-busting stage drama that took a sober look at the officer classes of the WWII US Navy.

All those social ills exposés, Holocaust remembrances, cautionary anti-nuclear war parables and pointed looks at American racism became Kramer’s reputation.

Dropping in on “The Defiant Ones,” recently screened on The Grio TV, I was struck by filmmaking qualities one forgets when a film ages into a classic so archetypal as to be beyond criticism out its time.

This is the movie that made Sidney Poitier an icon, but Tony Curtis was never taken that seriously as an actor, which explains some of the reason “Defiant” slipped into “dismissable” in some quarters.

It’s a lean racial allegory that preaches without ever seeming preachy, a beautifully shot (one of its Oscars was for Sam Leavitt’s B&W cinematography), well-cut time capsule of America at the birth of the Civil Rights Era.

Whatever star power and “message” appeal it had then, what makes it timeless is its “men on the run” story — two convicts, chained-together, on the lam from Southern justice.

No, it almost never looks like The South. They filmed it in the treeless mountains of Southern California, on backlots and sound stages, faking “swamps” and the like when needed.

The set-pieces — crossing a “raging” (not really) river, crawling out of a deep mud pit, fending off and then captured by the enraged white men of a local town, the single farm mother (Cara Williams) and her son that they stumble upon — can play as predictably corny.

But that on-the-run-in-chains narrative still zips by, and the script, with its get-past-racism-to-find-each-other’s humanity subtext, still pops.

“How come they chained a white man to a black?”

“The warden’s got a sense of humor...They’ll probably kill each other before they go five miles.”

Theodore Bikel’s sheriff character, “up for reelection,” has a hint of a drawl and a pre-Atticus Finch lawyer-turned-lawman notion of justice. He’s not a caricature when he might easily have been one. The script and the humanity Bikel brought to many characters over a very long career, make this guy out of step with his “posse.” He wants these men taken alive, and won’t let others even think about “mob justice.”

Here was a movie that took on the N-word head-on, with Curtis’s racist armed robber using the slur, and the standard defense — the assorted words thrown at white people in response in that day. Poitier’s hard-bitten “Ever heard those used with ‘in the woodpile'” might have opened a few eyes, if not minds, in 1958.

“I ain’t gettin’ mad, Joker. I been mad all my natural life.”

On-the-run stories put us in the dilemma with the characters, second-guessing their choices, using everything we’ve ever seen in such stories (“Cool Hand Luke” stands out) to guess what our criminal anti-heroes will do to get to “freedom.” One is desperate to go north, the other hellbent on heading “south.” Guess who wants to go where?

The film has a not-cynical-enough reporter (Lawrence Dobkin), a racist goon (Claude Akins) in conflict with an older, tougher local (Lon Chaney, Jr.) who won’t let a lynching stain his town’s conscience, the inhumanity of a search-dog trainer (King Donovan) and state trooper (Charles McGraw) in conflict with the sheriff, too many places for America’s moral quandary over the issue of race to be debated.

This could have been “All the King’s Men” or “Twelve Angry Men” and it never manages to be that tough.

But Kramer gets a message he felt America needed to hear and probably still needs to hear on the screen in an artful, just-edgy-enough and still-entertaining film that retains its claim as a “classic,” at least in part to how deeply its burrowed itself into the culture.

MPA Rating: “approved,” violence, racial slurs

Cast: Sidney Poitier, Tony Curtis, Theodore Bikel, Lon Chaney Jr,. Charles McGraw, Cara Williams, Lawrence Dobkin and Claude Akins
Credits: Directed by Stanley Kramer, script by Nedrick Young, Harold Jacob Smith. A United Artists release.

Running time: 1:36

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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