In Brief: this is the write-up of The Defiant Ones prepared for the on-off book on Lon Chaney Jr, Moonlight Shadows. Feedback is very welcome!
Produced by Stanley Kramer for Lomitas Productions, Inc. Directed by Stanley Kramer. Screenplay by Nedrick Young & Harold Jacob Smith. Music score by Ernest Gold. Cinematography by Sam Leavitt. Edited by Frederic Knudtson. Distributed by United Artists.
Technical: 1.66:1, black and white, Westrex mono. Running time: 96 minutes. Production: late February to early April 1958. Premiere: September 24 1958 (NY).
With Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, Theodore Bikel, Charles McGraw, Lon Chaney, King Donovan and Claude Akins.
Two convicts—one white (Tony Curtis), one black (Sidney Poitier)—in a Southern chain gang are being transported in a van when the vehicle crashes. They escape, and what follows is a story of the tensions between the two, being forced to flee cross-country together―mostly through swamplands―until they find a way of breaking the four-foot chain that binds them.
Producer-director Stanley Kramer originally offered the role of “Joker” Jackson, the white male lead in The Defiant Ones, to Marlon Brando. He was busy elsewhere. Several others reportedly turned it down, including Robert Mitchum, who declined because he didn’t believe a white man and a black man would be chained together in the segregated South. (He claimed to have been in a Southern chain gang himself, in his youth.) Tony Curtis had recently appeared in Alexander Mackendrick’s brilliant film noir, The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), playing the amoral protagonist, Sidney Falco, quite beautifully—he was moving away from his ‘pretty boy’ image and was very keen to take on the role of Jackson. Kramer’s first choice for Noah Cullen, however, apparently always was Sidney Poitier, whose breakthrough role had been in MGM’s Blackboard Jungle (1955).
The story for The Defiant Ones, credited on screen to Nathan E Douglas and Harold Jacob Smith, caused a stir not only for its emotive themes, but also when it was revealed that Douglas was a pseudonym for writer Nedrick Young, who had been blacklisted in 1953 for taking the Fifth during HUAC proceedings. A much-needed, speedy change in Academy Awards policy allowed Young to receive an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, and in fact The Defiant Ones did take the Best Original Screenplay award at the April 6 1959 ceremony… but Kramer continued for some time to take flak for his supposedly un-American decision to use blacklisted talent. He used Young again for another contentious movie, Inherit the Wind (1960)—and yet more noise ensued.
“Joker” Jackson, which Curtis performs with a slightly wobbly but mostly plausible Southern accent, is not so much an unrelenting racist as a product, or victim, of his background & culture. To a slightly lesser degree, the same is true of Poitier as Cullen. Jackson does call Cullen the N word in the opening scene, but the picture deliberately avoids presenting a—so to speak—black & white portrait. Their flight from the law is one of enforced mutual dependence, from which grows a bond of trust and, by the final reel, genuine affection.
It’s inspiring and beautifully played in every moment―and many decades later, while it has unavoidably dated in certain respects, it still has something to say that isn’t at all hindered by clumsy political lecturing or cultural bias.
The supporting cast provides particularly fine backup on all counts. Theodore Bikel, heading the search for the escaped cons, pitches his portrayal of a sympathetic lawman very nicely. Everyone in the film performs to a high standard.
Amidst this, Lon appears about halfway through, as the two men stumble upon a small settlement and the prospect of food. The cons get caught entering the village in the dead of night, and after a struggle & chase find themselves in front of a lynch mob eager to see them swinging. Lon, as Big Sam, intercedes for them, persuades the crowd to let the law handle it, and gets to slug a gung-ho Claude Akins to reinforce his point. Lon plays his scenes perfectly, his grizzled appearance capturing a long life of experience and wisdom needed to make his character breathe―really breathe, without any kind of gimmicks or scenery-chewing.
The coda of Lon’s brief but pivotal role comes when he enters the shack where they’re imprisoned, awaiting the law, and lets them go. It’s here we discover that Sam himself is a former convict and chain gang member―but he releases them without mawkish sentiment or fanfare, simply whispering, as they disappear into the distance: “Run, chickens, run!”
The revelation is almost superfluous―it adds a personal dimension to the stance Big Sam takes, but the powerful impression Chaney had already made easily stands without it.
As brief as the role is, Chaney has never been better. The degree of control, assurance, and—dare we say it?—naturalness is a revelation, and in many ways is a tragic indication of what is lost to history and opportunity (and, we must allow, a battle with alcohol). There’s an entirely different career suggested, as a powerful presence in fully ‘serious’ and ‘modern’ films, holding his own with the very best, which was destined never to happen.
The Defiant Ones received nine Oscar nominations (the most a single film got that year), including Nedrick Young’s win for best screenplay. Two of them were in Best Actor category for both Curtis and Poitier, the latter being—astonishingly and very sadly—the first black male nomination in any category. Neither actor won, but a second award, for Best Cinematography, did go to Sam Leavitt.
Lon, unsurprisingly, was not amongst the nominees for Best Supporting Actor―but Theodore Bikel was. Elsewhere, it won a number of other awards, including a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (drama), and over in the UK a BAFTA for Poitier (Best Foreign Actor).
Chaney must have been delighted to be involved in another film of this quality. It was a major high-point in what was otherwise a slow, inexorable decline. It was the third and final time Kramer hired him; as much as people wonder why Kramer made use of him (the answer, of course, being: “he thought he was good”), the bigger question might be why he never used him again―especially as Lon’s work in The Defiant Ones is amongst his very best. Sadly, it may have partly been due to a growing industry awareness that his drinking was becoming ever-more problematic.
Harrison’s Reports, August 9 1958:
It is not a pleasant picture, for the action is grim and frequently violent, but it has been superbly directed and acted, and, without preachment, offers an eloquent message on tolerance and the brotherhood of man.
Bosley Crowther; New York Times, September 25 1958:
A remarkably apt and dramatic visualization of a social idea―the idea of men of different races brought together to face misfortune in a bond of brotherhood―is achieved by producer Stanley Kramer in his new film…
Between the two principal performers there isn’t much room for a choice. Mr Poitier stands out as the Negro convict and Mr Curtis is surprisingly good…
Lon Chaney gives a strong performance as an upright and fearless man who firmly deflates a lynch mob.