Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Defiant Ones (1958)

9 Nominations, 2 Wins

Win: Best Cinematography, Black-and-White - Sam Leavitt

Win: Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, Written Directly for the Screen - Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith

Nomination: Best Picture - Stanley Kramer

Nomination: Best Actor in a Leading Role - Tony Curtis

Nomination: Best Actor in a Leading Role - Sidney Poitier

Nomination: Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Theodore Bikel

Nomination: Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Cara Williams

Nomination: Best Director - Stanley Kramer

Nomination: Best Film Editing - Frederic Knudtson
Despite loving classic films, my knowledge of both Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier's work is sadly lacking, having only seen one film starring each man (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Some Like It Hot). After watching Poitier present Morgan Freeman with the lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, I decided I was due for an education in Poitier, and Turner Classic Movies obliged by showing The Defiant Ones as part of its Martin Luther King Jr. Day lineup of films.

The Defiant Ones has a simple premise, with an opening similar to The Fugitive. A prisoner transport bus crashes, allowing the prisoners to run free. What makes it special is that two prisoners, played by Poitier and Curtis, are handcuffed together, and the two men, each uncomfortable with the other's race, must work together in order to have a chance at escape. Set in the south in the 1950's, the premise offers the opportunity to examine a host of issues related to racial-based prejudice.

Instead of a melodramatic series of dialogues showing the characters' attitudes toward race, the device most often used in films such as this, the filmmakers instead show the character's developments through expertly crafted scenes. Particularly impressive is the sequence in which, shortly after they escape, the two men must wordlessly work together to cross a rushing river. Of course, scenes such as this would not be interesting to watch if performed by actors who were not compelling. Poitier and Curtis are both outstanding, and well deserving of their acting nominations. They play off each other expertly, and it is difficult to imagine better casting, even considering that Marlon Brando was originally slated to play Curtis's part. The two could have been quite a successful ongoing screen duo, and it is a shame they did not work together more.

The film features strong supporting performances from nominees Theodore Bikel and Cara Williams, as well as a nice featured role for Lon Chaney, Jr. I am a bit surprised Bikel was able to score a nomination, based on his limited screen time, and think Chaney was a more logical choice for the nomination. Cara Williams also had limited screen time, but she steals the few scenes that she appears in.

Despite being a film that is very much of its time, The Defiant Ones has hardly aged in the 50 plus years since its release and still feels vital. Though the film obviously carries a message of racial acceptance, it does not rely solely on its message, and Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob's Smith fine script is full of excellent character development. The Defiant Ones would have likely been a good film even without two outstanding lead performances, but with Poitier and Curtis, it is obvious why this film has stood the test of time.

Remaining: 3146 films, 870 Oscars, 5411 nominations

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