Monday, October 02, 2006

Stanley, Tony and The Defiant Ones

If Libertas insisted on calling Red-Blue Film Teams, the Siren is pretty sure Team Blue could call Stanley Kramer without comment. His name is a byword for earnest, uninspired liberal filmmaking. That's liberal and by no means left-wing, as this excellent assessment in a socialist periodical points out.

You don't disagree with Kramer because he stacks the deck. He's so reasonable he can cross over into irritating. The Siren likes Inherit the Wind a lot, but cringes every time Spencer Tracy walks out with a copy of Darwin AND the Bible under his arm. As someone who grew up surrounded by That Old-Time Religion, let's just say that wasn't the ending she was rooting for.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is too cumbersome to be funny, Judgment at Nuremberg has been supplanted by finer films on the Holocaust. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? is worth watching nowadays only for Sidney's Poitier general gorgeousness, since the man wasn't given an actual character to play, and for Katharine Houghton, a lovely presence whose later career played out mostly on stage.

So the Siren settled in to watch the The Defiant Ones expecting, well, not much. Who knew that would really make the film worth watching would be a bigoted Southern convict, played by Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx?

Tony Curtis gives a really good performance, and because his character isn't freighted with the same symbolic baggage as that of his costar, even Sidney Poitier's formidable talent doesn't make quite as large an impression. Curtis is entirely credible as Joker Jackson, the convict who escapes from a prison work gang still chained to Noah Cullen (Poitier). The two men make their way across the rural South, encountering--well, the sort of stuff you'd expect a black man chained to a white man to encounter in the rural South circa 1958. Hostility, in a word. And a few standout character actors, including Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Akins. Curtis and Poitier are pursued by reluctant and humane sheriff Theodore Bikel, who is prodded in turn by his captain, Charles McGraw in merciless mode. (If you want a complete plot rundown, or have seen the movie already, do check out this great piece at, a genre site that is the Siren's latest discovery.)

If the 1960s became the age of the Beautiful British Actor, in the 1950s it was the Americans who seemed to line up dazzling male beauties, one after the other--Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster. Tony Curtis could hold his own in the looks department against any of them, so much so that he has a prosthetic on his nose in this movie in an attempt to damp his appeal. How well that works (basically, it doesn't) can be judged from the still above. But Curtis's amazing looks help believability late in the film, when a lonely, frustrated grass widow takes one look at him, chains and all, and starts fixing his supper.

In terms of camera work, the film isn't very engaging. The images themselves are often beautiful (and won an Oscar for cinematographer Sam Leavitt) it's just that the film language tends to be pedestrian. Example: a long and very well-played monologue, delivered in bed by an ailing Tony to the grass widow. About midway through his speech the camera tracks back to an overhead shot, and lingers there, and oh look it is lit like a CHURCH, just like CONFESSION, and then descends again. You get a lot of stuff like that. Subtlety was in no way Kramer's strong suit.

Guiding actors, on the other hand, was. Kramer films are full of good acting. Here Curtis holds his own against all odds, even to a passable Southern accent. (He concentrates on the vowels and all but ignores the consonants, and so avoids that exaggerated drawl that kills many imitation Southern accents.) He gets the best character arc in the movie, but in the end it is an open question whether Joker has come anywhere close to overcoming his prejudice. Where Curtis succeeds is in showing how this convict is able to move beyond a criminal's strongest trait, his absolute selfishness.

A general Curtis postscript: Last year I read his 1993 autobiography, cowritten with the excellent biographer Barry Paris. It is a strange book indeed. Curtis vaults beyond arrogance, into a territory where your self-love is so enveloping you have no idea how you sound to other people. (For instance, when Curtis describes how he decided to quit visiting his pathetic, institutionalized schizophrenic younger brother.) The frank selfishness is so consistent that after a while, amazingly, it gets to be kind of endearing. The man lets it all hang out. And once you have read the book, it isn't surprising that The Defiant Ones has something in common with other great Curtis performances in Sweet Smell of Success and The Boston Strangler. He isn't afraid to be disliked, which the Siren would call a mark of any real actor, as opposed to a matinee idol. It is a shame that Curtis's career, with a few bright exceptions, petered out in the 60s in a series of silly farces--jobs taken in part to make child support payments for his six kids from various marriages.


Exiled in NJ said...

I remember biting nails while seeing Defiant in the theater way back when. I must have been fourteen; I think we went because Sidney had been so cool in Blackboard Jungle, while Curtis along with Kirk Douglas had taught us to scream 'Odin' at the top of our lungs.

I wrote a little piece once ( where I needed a PR man. I had to name him Sidney Falco.

Thank you, Siren, for paying tribute to a man who deserves a better postscript to his career than 'yonda lies da castle of my fodder.'

Peter Nellhaus said...

I had a film magazine that had an issue devoted to the Blacklist. There was an article about Defiant Ones co-writer Ned Young. Young was blacklisted at the time. He and co-scripter Harold Jacob Smith appear on the opening credits with their names underneath (Young with a pseudonym), a bit of an inside joke. Young also was embarrassed that his story became the basis for Jailhouse Rock.

Additionally, on TCM, Tony Curtis claimed that Robert Mitchum was originally offered his part in Defiant Ones. Curtis also claimed credit for giving Poitier equal billing!

What's the status on Jr. Campaspe?

Koneko said...

Hello dear Siren! I will check this one out. I'd never have thought of it otherwise. Hope you are doing well...

Tonio Kruger said...

Nice article. Though oddly that Socialist article criticizing Stanley Kramer's politics made me more sympathetic towards Kramer than most articles I've read praising him.

But then I have relatives in Krakow and an American-born mother who lit candles in support of the Polish Solidarity movement so I tend to take most socialist rhetoric with a grain of salt....

The Siren said...

Exiled, Curtis devoted a page-and-a-half in his memoirs to that Yonda line, and admitted that the ribbing always had pissed him off and always would. He says, quite reasonably, that the real goon was the screenwriter who gave him the line in the first place -- and who says you have to speak about castles in Britishese, anyway? I guess that is what I mean when I say endearing; a lot of actors would claim to have laughed it off, but Curtis retained something of a street tough's hatred for any kind of ribbing.

Peter, I did not know about Young! very interesting. According to Mitchum's biographer it was true that he was offered the Curtis part, but he turned it down on the grounds that no Southern chain gang would have black & white men chained together. As for the Poitier billing, Curtis repeats the claim in his autobiography, and it is plausible to me.

Koneko, I think you would enjoy it. It is an archetypal prison movie in a lot of ways, and you will immediately see how often it has been ripped off. There was even a Warner Bros. cartoon parody, with Sylvester chained to (if I remember correctly) the bulldog character.

Tonio, I am giggling, because the Socialist article had the same effect on me in terms of Kramer's politics--you can accuse the man of a great deal, but dishonesty, it seems to me, is a long shot. Kramer is so sincere it hurts. But oddly the piece was one of the most sympathetic articles I have read in terms of giving Kramer his artistic due.