I use the DVR to record old movies and when I have nothing going on – which is rare – I like to watch them. Not too long ago, I watched “The Defiant Ones” with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier. In addition to containing a really good story, the film is a landmark of race relations, considering its release date in 1958, two years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott was over and one year after the Little Rock Nine.
In the film, two convicts, one white and one black, escape when their transit truck crashes in a rain storm, but the two men are shackled together. When the slow-and-steady sheriff goes to look for them, he is told sardonically not to get in too big of a hurry since they’ll probably kill each other. The two convicts begin to alternately run like hell and fight like hell. Their racial and personal tensions drive the story line, as they are forced to work together to escape and achieve freedom – a very symbolic set-up. The white man, called “Joker,” is a disgruntled want-to-be hustler who is dissatisfied with economic inequality and who asserts that only the cunning can prosper, while the black man, called “Colored,” is a fed-up former sharecropper who has been jailed for standing up to an unjust effort by local law enforcement to repossess his belongings. The story begins with the black man singing a raucous a capella version of WC Handy’s “Long Gone,” which he continues to sing at poignant moments throughout the film. Again, symbolically, the premise is that two downtrodden men, who are at odds with each other racially but who have eerily similar socio-economic situations, must work together to overcome the oppressive circumstances that have been and will be doled out by the forces of law and order, which is represented by bickering leaders and buffoons for followers.
While watching “The Defiant Ones,” I expected some of what occurred – a near-lynching, for example – but not everything. Although Joker does try to escape being lynched alongside Colored by pleading that they can’t lynch a white man, the racial divisions are not dealt with so easily. Near the end of the film, Joker and Colored encounter a boy and his mother who have been abandoned by the father and left to their farm, providing another racially charged scenario for social commentary. The lonely, desperate and isolated woman seems to fall in love with Joker and plans with him to make a run for it, thus saving each of them from their respective prisons; although at first unknown to Joker, she directs Colored to escape to the passing train through a nearby swamp, and into certain death, so that he will not live to tell the authorities about them. This crescendo provides a set-up for the catharsis, as Joker has to choose between having freedom with a woman who has the money to supply their needs and saving the life of a black man who has become his friend and partner.
I can’t, with a clear conscience, tell the end, but it’s symbolism is obvious, too. Generally, I like Sidney Poitier’s movies, and I liked this one, too. (About a month ago, I watched “Lilies of the Field,” which was another of his films I hadn’t seen. I often show “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night” to my students when we study screenwriting, because both films are timely and timeless all at once.) Tony Curtis did a good job in this film too, being more than a cardboard stereotype of 1950s intolerant Southern white man; he brought a depth to that character that was necessary for the story to be a strong one.