Directed by Stanley Kramer
The Defiant Ones was the inspiration for the relationship between Woody and Buzz in Toy Story. It’s the story of two men more than at odds with each other who are literally chained together as they deal with a more immediate, oppressive force. This set up necessitates that they learn to get along in order to get away from the prison guards who chase after them, following a bus crash that aided their getaway.
That one of them is white and one is black makes the tension all the more palpable. This is a story about race, with as sincere and blunt a message as many other 1950s melodramas (like Blackboard Jungle or Bigger Than Life). In these films there is a clear arc for the characters to undergo (in this case Tony Curtis learning to see past the color of a man’s skin) and in the end a very, very clear takeaway for the audience (racism is bad).
But this was also 1958 and so such messages needed to be heard. They would be heard again in another Sidney Poitier film, 1967’s In the Heart of the Night.
So here we have two convicts changed together at the wrist. They are “Joker” (Curtis) and Noah (Poitier), and they have been chained together because the warden apparently has a strange ‘sense of humor.’
While the point of the story and its eventual destination is no surprise, the thing I’m fascinated by is how the sequences break down to get them there. It’s a similar dynamic as you see in many films, be it a romantic comedy or buddy comedy. There are two people with a similar goal in mind but who still can’t see eye to eye. They would normally loathe the other, but the plot forces them to work together. Because of these multiple layers of tension and drama there will be moments in which they succeed on one level but fail on another. Then the end of the film should bring together these separate dramatic levels into something clear and cohesive.
In The Defiant Ones you have not only the societal and interpersonal conflict but as well the internal one. I’d argue that Noah doesn’t have as much to work with in this regard, mostly just responding to different degrees of racism from the tertiary characters. It’s Joker who is given clear hopes and dreams for what he might do should he become a free man. These things will become important plot questions later on.
So to backtrack… we have Joker and Noah escaping together and immediately grating on the other’s nerves. Joker says more than a few racist things, Noah calls him out on it, and Joker doesn’t see the problem. They have a momentary truce not because they’ve really budged from their respective points of view (or more specifically that Joker hasn’t budged from his), but because they’ve grown tired of arguing.
This is the first point at which they begin to bridge the gap between them.
Then they are taken prisoner by a rabid mob in a nearby town. They interrogate, predictably, Noah before deciding they should lynch the two men. Joker reveals his true colors when he insists they wouldn’t really lynch a white man, would they?
When one of the more friendly men in the group later sets them free it’s a positive plot development except that now Noah must answer for his transgression. We see that him softening up to Joker wasn’t really a change of heart but rather just a matter of convenience, learning to get along with a cell mate.
Later they stumble upon a farm at which lives a single mother and her young son. She is quickly taken with Joker and becomes someone through whom he could conceivably pursue all the dreams he had for life as a free man. It’s too good to be true, in some ways, because she points Joker towards a path to freedom that will only get him arrested or killed.
When Joker learns this he turns on her and chooses to save the man who has become his friend. He picks Joker over himself. And at that point it doesn’t much matter whether or not they get away because Joker’s arc is complete.
So two simplify, the story progression is this: Joker resents, at best, Noah — Joker softens to Noah — Joker makes a choice which undermines what we had thought was character growth and hurts Noah — Joker and Noah fight over his previous choice — After being taken in by a boy and his other Joker and Noah are freed — Joker faints due to a growing infection and Noah stays by his side — Joker finds comfort in the woman who represents a bridge to the future — When Joker learns that she believes Noah must be caught so that they could get away together he chooses to save Noah and is shot in the process — Joker and Noah are apprehended by the authorities after they fail to get away, but the last image is of Joker, possibly dying, smoking a cigarette while his head rests in Noah’s lap (a degree of intimacy that would offend Joker in act 1).
So that’s the story.
If you have two characters butting heads like this then it helps to have the plot force them together. After an initial escape or action set piece they have a moment to reflect and to bond, but then in the second act outside forces will intervene to reveal their true colors, that maybe they haven’t really bonded. Instead their initial character growth is an illusion because it’s convenient, not truly earned. From this there is a backlash, frustration between them which they must address before another outside force steps in and provides another opportunity to make the right choice regarding the other.
At least that’s what I took away from it.