Any film with two men going across the country is bound to be interesting. Add the fact that they are criminals and thus chained together, the fact that there is a racial aspect and that the two men are played by Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, two of the greatest actors ever to live, and you have The Defiant Ones, a masterpiece of epic proportions.
I am a firm believer that a film is a film – whether you are watching it in full HD or on a tiny screen in an alleyway, it is the exact same film, regardless of quality. However, the restoration United Artists made of The Defiant Ones made an enormous difference. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of the wide landscapes and meticulous set design made this film seem even more grandiose and epic than it was originally. Stanley Kramer proves that he is one of the most talented directors in history, and one that is sadly all to often ignore, despite the fact that he made some great American masterpieces.
Tony Curtis really had a great run of films between 1957 and 1959, sharing the screen with Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell of Success, and creating one half of the iconic duo in Some Like it Hot, along with Jack Lemmon. His pairing with Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones was no less impressive, and perhaps his greatest screen performance ever. However, he was given an extra challenge here, because as good of an actor that Curtis was, he wasn’t always the strongest performer, and if it hadn’t been for his pretty-boy good looks, he wouldn’t have been the star he became. His challenge came in the form of acting across from Poitier, a titan of acting. Every single word Poitier says is delivered with such passion and fierce dedication, and he truly gives a landmark performance. However, both actors play their roles convincingly, and neither actually overshadows the other. Perhaps Poitier will be remembered for longer, purely based on his singing of “Long Gone” throughout the film.
There are so few flaws throughout The Defiant Ones, it would be arrogant for me to nitpick the little problems I had with it. My biggest concern, however, was the romantic element brought in near the end. It was vital to the story, and the whole final act depended on it, because without the temporary loss of Poitier’s character, there is nothing to show the bond the two men built. My biggest complaint with the romantic element was how rushed it felt – it didn’t feel convincing. Cara Williams, as Curtis’ lover, was completely unconvincing, and her performance was just bad. I am actually glad Curtis’ character didn’t end up with her, because the friendship between Poitier and Curtis was much more interesting. In retrospect, perhaps that’s why she was written like that.
This film is also worth it for an absolutely amazing performance by Lon Chaney Jr., who gives a small but absolutely brilliant performance as Big Sam, a man who has just had enough. It chills your spine to hear his monologue to the mob who are going to lynch our main characters, and seeing his genuine kindness and empathy towards these two men he doesn’t know, but somehow is connected to through the reveal that he also was in a chain gang, was absolutely stunning.
The Defiant Ones is a very rare masterpiece. A film that is so good, it is impossible for even the most hardened, most refusive viewers to declare as being anything less than “good”. It is a fantastic film, and hopefully one that will live on as a great masterpiece.