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The Defiant Ones

The Defiant Ones (1958) is a notable and well-loved film that typifies Hollywood's socially conscious sensibilities in the wake of the blacklist, and despite a few creaky elements, it still retains a lot of its original power. Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier star as John 'Joker' Jackson and Noah Cullen, two convicts who escape from custody after the wreck of a prison transport-truck. The only two problems with their lucky break are that they are chained together and they don't much like each other. In pursuit is the local sheriff, Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), assisted by State Police Cpt. Frank Gibbons (Charles McGraw) — a pair who may represent the long arm of the law but don't get along any better than the human prey they are hunting (Sheriff Muller, who does not move fast enough for Cpt. Gibbons' liking, dryly observes that the black prisoner and white prisoner were chained together because they wouldn't get far as escapees before killing each other). Of course, Joker and Noah threaten to tangle, but the fact that they need each other to survive forces them to combine their efforts as they elude hounds, cops, and even a vigilante mob. Directed by Stanley Kramer, The Defiant Ones obviously has a "lesson" to offer, and while it may have been daring for its day, decades later it's hard to know if there are that many Americans left who cannot grasp its simple themes (or rather, it's unlikely that those who still harbor racism will care two whits about this movie). But where the film stands the test of time is in its performances, particularly the two leads. Curtis — at the time one of the screen's foremost light comics — takes an unusual stab at drama, and while it's hard to forget that the Southern-boy Joker is being portrayed by a Jewish New Yorker (born Bernard Schwartz), Curtis's overall affability gives soft edges to a sometimes-unpleasant role. Stronger is Poitier, who plays the fugitive Noah with biting venom and frustration (and was there ever another actor who could be as sanctimonious as Sidney Poitier and still keep the audience on his side?). Kramer directs with clarity and detail, and his decision to not score the film renders some of the most exciting and dramatic moments in near-silence, giving it an appropriate documentary flavor. Also starring Cara Williams, Lon Chaney Jr., and Claude Akins. MGM's DVD release of The Defiant Ones features a clean transfer (1.66:1) from a black-and-white source-print that has been meticulously cared for — at times it's hard to see a single pop or scratch. Audio is in the original mono (DD 2.0). Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—JJB



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