• The Defiant Ones (Eureka Classics) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Eureka Classics
    Release date: June 11, 2018
    Directed by: Stanley Kramer
    Cast: Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, Theodore Bikel, Charles McGraw, Lon Chaney Jr., King Donovan, Claude Akins, Lawrence Dobkins, Whit Bissell, Carl Switzer, Cara Williams
    Year: 1958
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    The Movie:

    After a truck carrying prisoners crashes, it’s learned that two—a white man (John ‘Joker’ Jackson, played by Tony Curtis) and a black man (Noah Cullen, played by Sidney Poitier) shackled together—have escaped. A posse forms to apprehend the criminals, with the plan that hungry bloodhounds will be used to rack and possibly kill them. The only thing that prevents them from doing so is Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), who compassionately believes the two men can be taken alive. Meanwhile, the shackled prisoners despise each other but decide to work together for their mutual survival, which means not only maintaining a safe distance from their pursuers but also getting unhitched, so to speak.

    Despite a treacherous landscape and poor weather, the two men make their way to a camp community. There, they try to break into a store to feed their starving bellies and find tools to break their chains, but they get caught instead. Thankfully for them, one man, Sam (Lon Chaney Jr.), appeals to the mob to lock them up and turn them in to the police the next day rather than lynch them. That night, however, Sam breaks into the shed where they’re being kept and sets them free, revealing his own past as a prisoner. Jackson and Cullen flee, but they come across a gun-wielding young boy and force him to take them home, where they meet his mother (Williams). She takes a strange liking to Jackson; hoping to strike out with him and make a new life for her and her son, she plots Cullen’s death. When Jackson discovers what she’s done, he goes ballistic.

    The Defiant Ones is a very obvious and somewhat heavy-handed indictment of race relations in the United States in the 1950s, one that naturally culminates in the idea that the races could get along if only they would get to know each other better. It’s a lofty sentiment, but in Kramer’s hands, subtlety is thrown out the window in favor of silly emotional gambits. The film ends with Cullen singing a song as he holds his beloved Jackson; whether the producers intended for the relationship between the two men to come across as subtextual as it does may forever remain a mystery, but the notion hasn’t been lost on a myriad of reviewers. Jackson gives up the pretty girl and a future family for his rugged pal. In a way, the race-relations metaphor becomes too weighted down to carry its convictions, though, at the time, the film turned tremendous profits at the box office, as much because of Poitier’s and Curtis’s rising star power as its message of hope, redemption, and racial bonding.

    Stanley Kramer originally cast Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando as the leads, but when he delayed development for Poitier to finish another picture, Brando had to bow out. Robert Mitchum was offered the part, but he allegedly turned it down because he didn’t believe in the basic idea that, with segregation laws what they were in the South, a black man and a white man would ever be shackled together (it should be noted that the film does address this, as the sheriff concludes that the warden did it because he found it funny). Curtis was then cast, though not entirely with Kramer’s or Poitier’s support. In the end, he acquitted himself well. Known up until the late ‘50s as a pretty boy, Curtis proved himself a capable actor in The Defiant Ones, gaining the respect of Poitier, Kramer, and innumerable filmgoers.

    As entertainment, The Defiant Ones works. It isn’t overly long in the manner of most Kramer features, the leads overcome the handicap of the film wearing its message on its sleeve, and there’s hardly a dull moment to be had. Too bad it suffers from the constraints of period censorship, as one knows exactly how it’s going to end about five minutes into it. As for the notion of the racist white guy growing as a human being and embracing the members of the groups he had previously detested, it became a template for generations to come.


    Eureka Classics places The Defiant Ones on a single BD50. The film is presented in 1080p high definition with an MPEG-4 AVC encode, in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 (though it’s more than likely that some theaters would have projected it at 1.85:1). This is a black and white film with crisp outdoor photography, particularly in the many daylight scenes, where hills, shrubs, grasses, and swamps come close to revelatory in their detail. These scenes also show off nice contrast and good depth. Nighttime and darker sequences don’t fare nearly as well, with detail petering out the farther you go back into the frame. Grain is also better resolved in the lighter sequences. Overall, it’s a pretty organic presentation, and it’s obvious that any serious damage has been repaired, with only minor debris here and there remaining. In general, it’s nice looking, though it does appear to come from an older transfer. It simply isn’t as sparkling overall as a newer transfer would be, and some of the transitional fades are problematic.

    Sound is clear and well balanced. Eureka has opted for an English LPCM 2.0 track, with no other tracks offered. There’s no fuzz, faults, or distortions to report. Dialogue is clear, the score sounds good, and the effects are handled well. English subtitles for the deaf or hearing impaired are provided, though, as with Eureka’s release of Marty (1955), they sometimes have missing words or sentences.

    There are only a couple of extras, but the primary one, a newly recorded interview with film historian Kim Newman, is very good. It’s obvious that Newman has digested the film to the point that he can perfectly point out its strengths and weaknesses, which makes his references to the two men being shackled at the ankles so strange. He doesn’t shy away from the heavy-handedness of the social message, nor from discussing the obvious gay subtext in the relationship between Jackson and Cullen. The interview lasts for slightly less than 20 minutes, but it’s never boring and moves like wildfire.

    Rounding out the extras is the original theatrical trailer, which runs approximately three minutes.

    Per contractual obligations, The Defiant Ones is locked to Region B. It comes in a package containing a reversible sleeve and a DVD of the film, which was not provided to Rock! Shock! Pop! for review.

    The Final Word:

    The Defiant Ones wears its social message on its sleeve, but it remains an important film in the evolution of black characters (and actors) on the big screen. It’s also entertaining and fast moving, something that can’t be said of all Stanley Kramer films. Eureka Classics’ presentation of the film is a solid one: It generally looks good and sounds great, and the Kim Newman interview is definitely worth a watch.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2019.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!