Cast & Crew
Lon Chaney [jr.]
When a truck transporting chain gang convicts back to prison crashes on a rainswept Southern road, two of the prisoners escape: Noah Cullen, a black man who reacts violently to racial insults, and John "Joker" Jackson, a Southern white bigot. While the two try unsuccessfully to break the three-foot chain that binds them together, Sheriff Max Muller, under pressure from the governor, organizes a posse of state troopers and civilian volunteers. Muller reminds the well-armed troopers and local hunters that the convicts are men, "not rabbits," and his refusal to allow one volunteer's brutal Dobermans off the leash angers police captain Frank Gibbons, who would just as willingly capture the men dead as alive. Meanwhile, Joker and Cullen argue about which direction they should take. Cullen, who realizes he has little chance of attaining freedom in the South, finally convinces his reluctant partner to proceed around the swamp and then try to jump a train to Ohio. While attempting to cross a rushing river, Cullen loses his footing, and the two are carried away by the rapids. Joker eventually grabs onto a branch, but when Cullen thanks him for pulling him out of the river, the white man snarls a cutting response. The convicts manage to kill a frog, and as they devour it, Joker advises Cullen to be less sensitive about racial epithets. Countering the white man's claim that "I didn't make the rules," Cullen answers that Joker breathed in his racism at birth and has been spitting it out ever since. In order to avoid the detection of a passing farmer, Cullen and Joker leap into a clay pit, and only by coordinating their efforts are they able to climb back out. That evening, as the men wait for the cover of darkness before sneaking into a small settlement, they begin to discuss their past experiences and future hopes. Their attempt to break into the general store for food, however, produces disastrous results: Joker seriously injures his wrist, and the townspeople capture them. The locals are about to lynch the escaped convicts when Big Sam, who had been a convict himself, rescues and later frees the men. At the same time, Gibbons, exasperated with what he considers the slow pace of the pursuit, threatens that Muller will lose his job if the posse fails to recapture the prisoners. A portable radio carried by one of the civilians endlessly blares rock and roll, which further erodes the tempers of the pursuers. The next day, Cullen and Joker are surprised when a young boy named Billy aims a shotgun at them, but they easily overcome the youngster, who leads them to his farm. There they hungrily devour a meal and hammer the chain from their wrists. Billy's mother, whose husband had abandoned her eight months before, is attracted to Joker, and as she tends to his injury, she confesses that she is deeply lonely. While Cullen sleeps, the couple makes love, and in the morning, the woman announces that she wants to escape in her car with Joker. Reluctant to abandon Cullen at first, Joker finally agrees to the plan just as Cullen appears. The woman advises Cullen to take the shortcut through the swamp to the railroad tracks, but after he leaves, she admits that the swamp is impenetrable bog and quicksand. Furious at his own inadvertant betrayal of Cullen, Joker pushes the woman away and starts to go after his cohort. The boy shoots Joker in the shoulder, and when the injured man finally locates Cullen in the swamp, he protests that he is too weak to go on. The posse has now reached the woman's farm. Proceeding through the swamp, Muller threatens to shoot the Dobermans if Gibbons removes their muzzles. Cullen and Joker, hearing the train whistle, stumble up the hill as the train crosses a trestle. Cullen leaps on, but cannot hold onto Joker, and both men tumble to the ground. Cradling Joker's head against his chest, Cullen muses, "We gave 'em a hell of a run for it, didn't we?" As Muller, who wants to confront the prisoners alone, approaches the men, Cullen sings his blues anthem, "Long Gone," and then laughs.
Lon Chaney [jr.]
Nathan E. Douglas
Wayne B. Fury
William C. Handy
Harold Jacob Smith
Best Story and Screenplay
Best Story and Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Supporting Actress
Behind the Camera - Feb. 9
Sidney Poitier came to the set of The Defiant Ones with a great deal of respect and admiration for Stanley Kramer. "Stanley was always a forerunner of terribly good things; He was the type of man who found it essential to put on the line the things that were important to him," the actor told Donald Spoto, author of the biography Stanley Kramer: Film Maker (Samuel French, 1990). "People have short memories: in the days he started making films about important social issues, there were powerful Hollywood columnists who could break careers. He knew this, and he said to himself, 'What the hell', either I do it or I can't live with myself.' For that attitude, we're all in Stanley Kramer's debt. He's an example of the very best of a certain type of filmmaker."
Tony Curtis also strongly believed in Kramer and the project, even though he often felt that the director showed favoritism to Poitier. "Because of the racial climate of the time, he went out of his way to be more agreeable to Sidney," the actor said in his book Tony Curtis: The Autobiography (Morrow, 1993). "I noticed that in his direction and his behavior. He never treated me with the same reverence he did Sidney. I wasn't mad about it. That's just the way it was. Sidney was a hell of a talent, no matter what color he was, and this was a time when Hollywood was just starting to realize maybe it could do something positive for civil rights."
Curtis, in fact, performed a very generous deed on Poitier's behalf. Because he was a much bigger star, Curtis was to be given full star billing, while Poitier's contract called for him to be listed with the other supporting players. Curtis went to Kramer and insisted that Poitier's name be given equal prominence with his. It was Poitier's first top billing in movies.
Both actors also had tremendous praise for the supporting cast. Curtis was particularly excited to be appearing with Carl Switzer, who had been a child star as Alfalfa in the "Our Gang" comedies that Curtis watched as a child. Curtis later said he loved listening to Switzer (an incessant poker-player) talk about being a kid actor in early Hollywood and how he had been swindled out of the money he made from that popular shorts series.
Despite the mutual admiration and camaraderie among the cast and crew, The Defiant Ones wasn't necessarily a breeze to shoot. It was physically exhausting for Curtis and Poitier, who had to run through fields, swamps, and woods and fight each other barefisted, all while being chained together. There was also the famous climactic run for the train. Most grueling of all were the scenes where the two chained men are swept down the rapids of a river and their desperate attempt to climb out of a deep clay pit during a rainstorm. Curtis said there were no doubles for the clay pit scene, which he deemed the hardest sequence in the film. He also said he had a stunt double for some of the water scenes while Poitier had a dummy as a stand-in for at least one shot - look for it, it's pretty obvious. However, most of the grueling stunt work was done by the two stars themselves.
by Rob Nixon
Behind the Camera - Feb. 9
The Defiant Ones - The Defiant Ones
The Defiant Ones marked a significant turning point in Sidney Poitier's career. Since the mid-fifties, Poitier had become a spokesperson for black empowerment due to his intelligent and uncompromising characterizations in such films as The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Edge of the City (1957). In a time of heightened racial tensions and a virtually nonexistent black presence in Hollywood, Poitier's Cullen was an inspirational figure to African-American moviegoers who rarely saw issues of skin color or racial prejudice addressed in contemporary movies. In his autobiography, This Life, Poitier recalled his involvement in The Defiant Ones: "As I saw it, in my career there was a real beginning for a break-through - not only for me but for other blacks in films. Suddenly decisions of a very political nature were on my doorstep. Was it important to carry on? Was it important for me to carry on? Naturally I felt I had certain things to offer, since I had begun to work with some regularity and had generated what I thought to be good vibrations spreading around the industry. The Defiant Ones, speaking directly to the point of how black people want to see themselves on the screen, would be a hell of a shot for us. And the role of Cullen would represent for me and other black actors a step up in the quality of parts available to us, and at the same time afford the black community in general a rare look at a movie character exemplifying the dignity of our people - something that Hollywood had systematically ignored in its shameless capitulation to racism."
Though Marlon Brando was reportedly Kramer's original choice for John "Joker" Johnson, Tony Curtis diligently proved himself the better choice in the role. In his autobiography, Curtis recalled, " At first they said I was too good-looking for the part; I didn't look enough like the a**hole "n*gger-hater" I was supposed to play. So I wore a false nose and made myself look uglier. I felt pretty strongly about wanting to do that movie....I had a double named Bobby Hoy, an excellent stunt man who looked like me and did some of the water scenes, but most of it was done by me. It was a physically exhausting picture."
When the film was completed, Curtis paid tribute to his co-star in a unique way. Poitier said, "Tony performed the most generous act I ever received from an actor in my life. My contract called for me to be listed among the supporting actors. Tony had top billing alone, but he went to Stanley Kramer and said, 'I want you to put Sidney's name up there with mine.' And that's exactly what happened. That's how I got top billing for the first time in my life. I think that speaks a lot of him."
After its premiere, The Defiant Ones became the most talked about film in Hollywood and eventually garnered eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Film Editing, Best Cinematography and Best Writing (The latter two won in their respective categories). Unfortunately, because Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier split the vote for Best Actor, David Niven walked away with the statuette for his performance in Separate Tables (1958).
Director/Producer: Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: Harold Jacob Smith (screenplay), Nedrick Young (story)
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Music: Ernest Gold
Art Direction: Fernando Carrere
Principle Cast: Tony Curtis (John Jackson), Sidney Poitier (Noah Cullen), Theodore Bikel (Sheriff Max Muller), Charles McGraw (Captain Frank Gibbons), Lon Chaney Jr. (Big Sam), King Donovan (Solly), Claude Akins (Mack), Lawrence Dobkin (Editor)
by Kerryn Sherrod
The Defiant Ones - The Defiant Ones
TCM Remembers - Stanley Kramer
With these films, Stanley Kramer built his reputation as a producer of important films. He made movies with a conscience, movies with a message. Although his films were sometimes criticized as being too simplistic in dealing with tough subjects, Kramer still deserves a great deal of credit for tackling sensitive subject matter no other director or studio wanted to address. His exploration of timely social issues is what makes his cinema unique and his recent passing leaves us with no one to fill his shoes.
Kramer learned his craft within Hollywood's studio system. He began as a production assistant on So Ends Our Night(1941) and was soon writing and editing. By the late forties, Kramer broke away from the studio hierarchy and formed an independent production company. Outside of the Hollywood system, he could tackle social issues head-on while producing well-crafted and meaningful dramas. In The New York Times obituary for Kramer, the director was quoted in accessing his own career and it's most appropriate here: "I decided that somewhere between the films on outer space and Sylvester Stallone, there is a place for me. I was always associated with films that had an opinion. I don't believe films change anyone's mind, but I was spawned during the Roosevelt era, a time of great change, and I still believe in trying to get people to think."
For his directorial debut, Not As A Stranger (1955), Kramer signed up the all-star cast of Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Olivia de Havilland and Gloria Grahame to reveal the trials and tribulations of doctors and nurses balancing medical school with their personal relationships. In The Defiant Ones (1958) shackled Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier together as escaped convicts. As they flee the law they're forced to confront each other's racism and ultimately discover that beneath their skin color, they are not so different. On the Beach (1959) was Kramer's anti-atom bomb polemic in which Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire survive an initial nuclear holocaust only to face a slow, painful death from fallout.
From the arms race to Biblical scripture, the following year Kramer turned his attention to the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 in Inherit the Wind(1960). This famous courtroom trial was a true-life clash of the titans as Fredric March and Spencer Tracy face off on the issue of Evolution versus Creationism. Although names are changed, March gave a grandstanding performance as William Jennings Bryan, the mouthpiece for conservatism, while Tracy played Clarence Darrow, a tireless fighter for progressive thought.
Kramer's films were more than just entertainment; his stories were political platforms for the Civil Rights Movement, disarmament and liberal thinking. For audiences who thought the director couldn't take on an issue greater than the Scopes Monkey Trial, Kramer's next film would prove to be even more controversial. Again, Kramer booked a cast of Hollywood's hottest names to bring mass appeal to his very serious film.
In Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) Spencer Tracy presides over a German war-criminal trial which delves into the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Burt Lancaster sits smugly on the stand as Ernst Janning, an unrepentant officer of the Gestapo, as Maximilian Schell mounts his defense. Montgomery Clift, as a Jew subjected to a sterilization experiment, nervously submits his testimony. Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich each take the stand. Hollywood's greatest stars came out to shed light on one of the darkest moments of the 20th century. The Academy responded with 11 nominations, including for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Tracy), Supporting Actor (Clift), Supporting Actress (Garland), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Editing. Schell won Best Actor for his dynamic performance as Herr Rolfe.
However, Stanley Kramer wasn't "Mr. Message Film" all the time. In a lighter moment, he produced the surrealist anti-fascist fantasy, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T(1953) in which he enlisted the talents of Dr. Seuss. More famously, he pooled the greatest comics together for an insane Cinerama screwball farce - It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
By Jeremy Geltzer & Jeff Stafford
TCM Remembers - Stanley Kramer
They'll kill each other in five miles.- Sheriff Max Muller
How come they chained a white man to a black?- Law officier
The warden's got a sense of humor.- Sheriff Max Muller
Nigger! You call me that again, and I'll kill you!- Noah Cullen
I ain't gettin' mad, Joker. I been mad all my natural life.- Noah Cullen
The young man with the transistor radio is played by "Our Gang" graduate Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer; this was Switzer's final screen appearance before his untimely death in a shooting incident.
Elvis Presley was first choice for the role of Joker Jackson.
'Sammy Davis, Jr.' was the first choice for the role of Noah Cullen.
Tony Curtis insisted that Sidney Poitier receive top billing.
United Artists production notes on the film contained in the AMPAS Library state that the production was filmed on a closed set because of the provocative nature of the topic. According to a July 1958 New York Times news item, the film's river-crossing sequence was photographed on the Kern River, near Kernville, CA. To film the scene, Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier were shackled together wearing rubber diving suits under their prison clothing. While wading though the swiftly running, thirty-eight degree river, they were carried away by the rapids and finally caught by stunt men at a designated position one hundred yards downstream.
A January 1, 1959 New York Times news item revealed that Nathan E. Douglas, credited onscreen as co-author of the screenplay, was a pseudonym for Nedrick Young, who had been blacklisted in 1953 for invoking the Fifth Amendment as an "unfriendly witness" before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Two weeks later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences repealed an amendment that prohibited Academy Award recognition to anyone admitting or refusing to deny membership in the Communist Party. Douglas and his co-author, Harold Jacob Smith, were then nominated and subsequently won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. The controversy surrounding the issue continued, however, and in a September 1959 New York Times news item, it was charged that the American Legion singled out independent producers for employing blacklisted talent while ignoring the major studios. Stanley Kramer and United Artists were among those criticized for producing a picture using a blacklisted writer. According to a July 30, 1996 Hollywood Reporter article, the Writers Guild of America had officially restored Young's credit, along with credits for the writers of nine other films written by blacklisted writers.
The Defiant Ones was also nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (both Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier), Best Supporting Actor (Theodore Bikel) and Best Supporting Actress. It received an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, as well as garnering three New York Film Critics awards: Best Motion Picture, Best Direction and Best Writing. It also won a Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture (Drama), and Sidney Poitier won the award for Best Foreign Actor at the Berlin Film Festival. The film was acclaimed for its promotion of race relations, winning the 1959 annual Brotherhood Media Award presented by the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Prague Film Festival Award for films designed to promote "better relations between people."
Special screenings for integrated audiences in several Southern cities were arranged by the Protestant Film Council to promote an "understanding between the races," according to a February 7, 1961 Hollywood Reporter news item. An April 11, 1959 Los Angeles Times news item added, however, that a screening at a theater in Montgomery, AL, was canceled when the White Citizen's Committee Council protested that the film would give "moral support and financial gain to subversive propagandists." According to a modern source, Curtis insisted that he and Poitier share top billing; in the credits on the released film, Poitier was billed under Curtis. The Defiant Ones was remade for television in 1986. The remake was directed by David Lowell and starred Robert Urich and Carl Weathers.
1958 Golden Globe Winner for Best Picture--Drama.
Voted Best Picture and Best Director by the 1958 New York Film Film Critics Association.
Voted One of the the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1958 New York Times Film Critics.
Winner of the Best Actor Award (Poitier) at the 1958 Berlin International Film Festival.
Released in United States Summer August 1958
Released in United States 1958
Shown at Berlin International Film Festival 1958.
Released in USA on video.
Released in United States Summer August 1958
Released in United States 1958 (Shown at Berlin International Film Festival 1958.)
Winner of the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written Drama of 1958.