There is no denying Kramer’s film belongs to a bygone era, yet as an example of socially motivated filmmaking, delivered by its strongest advocate, there are few better.
Once upon a time the topic of segregation was both contentious, inflammatory and liable to start a riot in certain parts of this world. Those days may be gone but their spectre lingers in the darkness neither forgotten nor forgiven by many. What Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones does so eloquently is ask questions around prejudice and ignorance, making it both cinematically important and strangely contemporary.
Released in 1958 amid the volatile hotbed of a country in turmoil, The Defiant Ones challenged the preconceptions behind race. Marquee mainstay Tony Curtis was looking for something to diminish his pretty boy persona, while Sidney Poitier represented Hollywood’s first African-American through the racial wall. Pairing these two leading men on screen holds the key to making Kramer’s social commentary piece sing. Their chemistry is instant and enduring which does much to raise the game of Kramer’s supporting ensemble.
Although Curtis would make Spartacus, Some Like It Hot and Sweet Smell Of Success in this period, his appearance in The Defiant Ones still remains an important footnote. Similarly Poitier would go on to endure opposite Rod Steiger while his contribution for other actors of colour remains incalculable. Shot in black and white and featuring an array of character actors The Defiant Ones is at heart a character study.
Using location work, soundstages and miniatures, Kramer recreated unpredictable weather conditions, Deep South prejudice and a two-hander of contemporary relevance. Moments of conflict and friction are juxtaposed by incidental humour and extreme circumstances which bond these two men together. Intermittent stereotypes threaten their camaraderie through individual segregation, while more conventional prejudice is evident in minor character encounters. For many this may seem outdated or unimportant but The Defiant Ones remains a film of importance if only for the themes it addresses.
There is subtlety, humour and solid acting in evidence from the outset, while character moments between our leads remain magnetic. There is no denying Kramer’s film belongs to a bygone era, yet as an example of socially motivated filmmaking, delivered by its strongest advocate, there are few better.