The Defiant Ones is one of Stanley Kramer’s best films. It was made during the run of films for which he is best remembered, from The Defiant Ones to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Kramer was one of the key filmmakers of the post-war era, specialising in making effective films that often dealt with the big issues of the day, such as McCarthyism (disguised as Creationism in Inherit the Wind), nuclear war (On The Beach) or racism in the two films that bookend this run. Some were dismissed as “message movies,” but the quality of most is undeniable.
Kramer would tackle racism in a more saccharine way in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner nearly a decade later, a film that is almost cringe-inducing for modern viewers despite the strong performances. The Defiant Ones, however, is a far more effective film at tackling the subject, partly because it’s a quasi-film noir about a black escapee and a white escapee shackled together who have to eventually put aside their differences and co-operate to survive. It’s often that films when they use genre to cast a light on an issue are far more effective.
Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis star as the escapees — Robert Mitchum turned it down due to the fact blacks and whites would never be chained together in the segregated South. This was later spun by some, including Tony Curtis, as evidence that Mitchum was a racist and didn’t want to work with a black actor, which was false. Marlon Brando, who was actually given his first film role by Kramer, was also initially cast as the white prisoner but bowed out after delays.
Over the years Kramer’s work has been almost laughed at by modern critics because of how heavy-handedly he tackles the issues his films raise. It’s true that they are not subtle in the slightest, but in the case of this film he gives the viewer first and foremost a rollicking tale of these two men who have to struggle to survive. Sidney Poitier’s is the stronger performance, but the film marks Tony Curtis’s transition from a pretty boy to the darker and simply more interesting roles he would take on from the late ’50s into the early ’60s, such as The Sweet Smell of Success and Some Like It Hot.
Poitier’s character is also just as much of a crook as Curtis’s is, and is a far cry from the “dignified negro” roles he would be known for in the ’60s.
The film was a massive hit at the time, and has been remade officially once in the ’80s. It also got the exploitation treatment twice in the ’70s with the Pam Grier vehicle Black Mama, White Mama and with Ray Milland as a white racist who gets head-transplanted onto a black man in The Thing with Two Heads. The film has also been parodied almost from day one, and has been homaged in various TV shows and cartoons – even Fled from the ’90s is basically another remake. It just proves that if somebody has such a strong story hook, it will be imitated over and over.
The disc includes an interview with Kim Newman and film’s theatrical trailer.