#323. The Defiant Ones (1958)

The dialogue in this movie is so fantastic, and the camera is so restive in recording those long exchanges between shackled fugitives (Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier), that I was sure the movie must’ve been adapted from a play. But it’s not. The Defiant Ones is an original screenplay by Nedrick Young & Harold Jacob Smith and—for whatever this appraisal matters from a casual viewer—it stands out as one of the handful of movies where I was taken out of the photography, the story, and the performances in order to just double back and appreciate certain lines of dialogue, the rhythm and cadence (“Johnny Potatoes,” their nickname for a muckety-much, pounces so nicely off the tongue)—and of course the beauty of the dialogue is at least fifty percent attributable to the stellar performances of both Poitier and Curtis (with a strangely bravado appearance by the charmingly soft, avuncular, beer-bloated Lon Chaney Jr., who was easily the worst part of The Wolf Man, in which he played, regrettably, the Wolf Man), but…it’s complicated.

            The story, real quick, is that two prisoners, one Black and one white and both of them shackled together at the wrist, escape a chain gang and, in their long trek to safety, are forced to confront their biases in issues of race and social status and failure.

            So right away it’s a great vehicle for an adventure movie and a chatfest. What The Defiant Ones accomplishes so beautifully is it lives up to both of those opportunities—the action scenes are exciting and suspenseful, the dialogue is lyrical and lovely and brilliant in its handling of the race themes—and then those two virtues are doubled up! The action scenes manifest metaphors for everything the characters have been discussing.

  • When escaping a rain-sodden tar pit, one has to stand on the shoulders of the other, and then pull the latter up after.
  • When they get into a fist fight at the top of a hill, the one who falls takes the other down with him.
  • When one is assailed by a vigilante mob , they make it clear that they aren’t just killing the Black man, but the white man in his company.

            The foundational metaphor on which the whole thing stands is the image of two men, more alike than different but resentful of each other just the same, being shackled together in their pursuit of freedom. It’s a great image, but too simple to float a whole movie; the brilliance of the story here is how it treats that foundational metaphor as a crystal through which the light of different scenarios might shine and bend.

            There’s too much to like about the movie for me to communicate in a quick post but, as with Bridge on the River Kwai, I watched this on Vudu (recently acquired by Fandango) and, mired in so many faccets of story that need to be registered and appreciated at once, I have this vibe of enjoying a movie’s basic story while getting the vibe of other ghostly elements that are going over my head, things that’ll become clearer with subsequent viewings.

It gives the vibe of a movie that’s worth revisiting.

Looking at character, though, I notice that Sidney Poitier, in his debut on the List, is playing his role with way more depth sand nuance than Tony Curtis—whose arc we can tell from the outset is going to revolve around the softening of his racist edge, the humbling of his bravado. With Poitier, however, he starts out with a soft-spoken dignity, flashing an occasional tightening of the jaw and widening of the eyes that attests to a contained rage. When he stands up to Curtis to say they are not heading south for their escape, because it’ll be too dangerous for a Black fugitive, there’s an unbudging resolve about it, an unspoken assurance that he’ll resort to violence if need be. Later, when Curtis is ranting about how much he hates the word “thanks”, because it reminds him of being a subservient valet, Poitier counters that he feels the same way when addressed as “boy” (which Curtis has been calling him the whole movie).

            He’s always measured in his delivery. Only ever verging ona  rage that never qite explodes (barring a couple of tussles).

Lon Chaney stealing a couple scenes, surprisingly.

            Then, when they’re staking out the small community they’re planning to rob for supplies, Poitier reveals that the measured demeanor—which is played with such brilliant subtlety that a casual viewer could be forgiven for not even noticing—is the boulder on the back of every Black man in America, his son included: forced subservience, a societal expectation that he should know his place and render unto white men whatsoever they lay claim to. The point is that bravado and confidence and self-assertion, which Curtis brandishes so casually, are racial privileges. What Curtis embodies on the street is considered confidence; were Poitier, a Black man in the 1950s, to showcase the same behavior, it’d be seen as haughty, threatening, criminal. And it isn’t just that he’d be shunned or punished for it. He’d be murdered.

            And, as the film suggests, the white and Black man are shackled together in life, and one can only be shoved down so much before the other is brought down with him.

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