The Defiant Ones is one of Stanley Kramer's liberal conscience pictures, released at a time when certain American cinemas would still have been segregated, but it's also a pointer for a new kind of manhunt movie, one governed less by noiry expressionism than by photorealism: the difference perceived between its blacks and whites were intended to reflect the harshest of realities. It's as an anti-racism statement - shackled at the wrist, escaped convicts Tony Curtis (Caucasian) and Sidney Poitier (African-American) learn they must work together if they're to stay a step ahead of their pursuers - that the film is now at its least interesting. Kramer is overly reliant on one of the huntsmen bringing his AM radio to the hunt in order to make a rather talky action movie jive and swing; he could also do with a leading white character who represents the worst excesses of redneck racism, rather than Curtis's U-rated punk, who lets slip a solitary "n****r" early on and thereafter appears more grumpy with than particularly threatened by his cohort. As a result, it becomes all too apparent which direction this relationship is heading in, which wasn't the case elsewhere in the uncertain Fifties.
To his credit, Kramer has skill enough to make the physicality of this pursuit involving. The stars presumably had to like one another off-screen, being chained together in these circumstances for so long, and the scenes that send them (and not stunt doubles) scrambling down a river now look like the cinema finding its midpoint between two visions of a no less divided America: Lillian Gish hopping the ice floes in Way Down East, and Burt Reynolds and chums' fateful canoe trip in Deliverance. A nocturnal raid on a lakeside community also proves exciting, even if it reveals one of Kramer's dramatic weaknesses: a faith that there would always be someone on hand, when push comes to shove, to do or say the right thing. The revelation remains Poitier's performance, which looks and sounds at least as "modern" as anything Brando or Monty Clift were doing at the time, only schooled in the idiom and experiences of the street, rather than an actors' studio; it's through him - and his honorably tuneless singing - that Kramer can carve out an ending that allows the character a moment of triumph without patronising either half of the filmmaker's audience. Still, it would be another 13 years before the movies got around to filming Shaft, a decade or so that would encompass the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; even if these defiant ones set the pace, there was some way yet to go.
The Defiant Ones is available on DVD through MGM Home Entertainment.