Thursday, December 22, 2011

Worth Watching: The Defiant Ones (1958)

Title: The Defiant Ones
Director: Stanley Kramer
Language: English
Rating: PG

'Joker' Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) are both serving time in a chain gang in the southern US. When a van transporting them crashes on a rainy night, they take the opportunity to escape. The problem is they're chained to each other, a highly unusual (pretty much unrealistic) circumstance in the segregated South. In order to outpace their pursuers and survive, they're forced to tone down their mutual animosity and work together. As they struggle through forests and swamps and narrowly escape a lynch mob, a bond slowly forms between them which is tested when they reach a farm run by a lonely woman (Cara Williams) who seems to offer them their first real shot at freedom.

Brilliant acting from both Curtis and Poitier. Curtis plays 'Joker' Jackson as a man with a giant chip on his shoulder. He feels he's always been short-changed in life and never became anyone important; even the crime he's serving time for was a petty theft, nothing memorable and bold. Jackson's face often twists up as he thinks about all the things he wants in life that remain out of reach. As for Cullen, he knows all too well what that's like, and unlike Jackson he doesn't have a chance at real upward mobility; as a black man in the segregated South, he's been told from an early age that he has to just grin and bear it. "Be nice," he mutters at one point, mimicking people who have given him well-meaning advice. "Be nice."

Poitier plays Noah Cullen as reflective, coolly defiant and principled, with anger simmering inside him. He's not one to shy away from confrontation. He was put in the chain gang for assault, and he doesn't let Jackson talk down to him or get away with racist insults. Because that's one of Jackson's few consolations - poor as he is, he can try to claim superiority to Cullen. But Cullen fights back, physically and verbally. At the same time there are moments even early on when he treats Jackson with a tired sympathy, an understanding of Jackson's festering disappointments. And Jackson himself, when he can push aside his bitterness, shows concern and a troubled conscience, especially later in the film.

Joker Jackson and Noah Cullen

The well-written dialogue and the performances turned in by Curtis and Poitier would have been enough to make this a strong film, but there are a couple of memorable supporting characters who also add to its richness. One of them is Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), who's in charge of the search party pursuing the escaped convicts. Instead of making him a ruthless and relentless hunting machine of the sort typically seen in movies, the filmmakers wrote him as a decent guy who balances justice with mercy. He prefers to have the convicts back alive and not as bullet-ridden or dog-bitten carcasses. At several points, he needs to persuade his colleagues to use restraint.

Theodore Bikel as Sheriff Max Muller

And then there's the lonely woman on the farm (Cara Williams). I'll call her Lonely Woman (like the song sung by Sarah Vaughan) because it seems the filmmakers didn't give her a name, though oddly enough they named her young son Billy (Kevin Coughlin) even though his part is smaller. Lonely Woman is lonely because her husband abandoned her and Billy, and there's no one around for miles; her farm is relatively isolated, making it ideal for two convicts to spend the night. Though one of the primary purposes of her character is to show how Jackson has changed in the course of the film, she's an interesting person in her own right. When a couple of chained convicts turn up at her home, she takes it in stride. She's watchful, cautious, with a sharp eye for opportunity. Like Jackson, she's desperate to see the world and leave her current life behind her.

Cara Williams

I like how Jackson and Cullen confront one another repeatedly in this film, not just in angry and violent conflict but also in conversation; their speech is more intense than their physical fights, especially when they're reminiscing or assessing their lives. Jackson can't keep on ignoring Cullen's humanity. By the end of the film, he'll be placed in a position where he'll have to decide what's worth more: his own freedom or Cullen's life.

As for Lonely Woman, she and Jackson are kindred spirits. Had Jackson met her at the start of the film, her racist attitude towards Cullen wouldn't have given him pause, but by the time he stumbles into her farmhouse he's grown a little in understanding, while she's had no similar opportunity. Their brief connection is nonetheless powerful, and I admire Tony Curtis and Cara Williams for the way they let their characters' attraction simmer through long speculative glances across the kitchen - and then later in a soul-baring conversation in the dark, their faces full of yearning.

Memorable sights and sounds
Cullen's singing, especially at the end of the film. He sings because he can; there's no law against it. He sings with a kind of strained brightness, as if he's dragging his voice out into the sunlight. His singing can serve as a wall between himself and his circumstances, a shield he holds up to deflect attack. He also uses it to provoke others; I suspect he secretly itches for someone to try to shut him up so he can retaliate.

Stand-out scenes
I mentioned earlier the soul-baring conversation between Lonely Woman and Jackson; it's a luminous scene. They have real humanity. They're flawed, their attitudes can be downright ugly, but they also evoke sympathy. That's part of the beauty of the The Defiant Ones.

One of the stand-out conversations between Jackson and Cullen takes place at night when they're hiding on the outskirts of a village and waiting for the opportunity to break into the grocery store and steal some food. It's probably their most civil exchange in the movie so far. It doesn't mean they suddenly like each other, only that they relate to each other as men who are frustrated at every turn, well-acquainted with disappointment but not resigned to their lot in life. As they talk, they watch lights in the village houses slowly flick off.  What follows is mob justice, a desperate and despicable protest made by Jackson as he pleads for his life, and a wonderful appearance by Lon Chaney Jr. as one of those rare people who can be a voice of reason when everyone else is calling for blood.

Further thoughts
These questions keep coming up throughout the film: What does it take to get other people's respect? And what does it mean to really respect yourself?

*All images link back to their sources (Flixster Community and Rotten Tomatoes).