STANLEY KRAMER FOR THE DEFIANT ONES
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Vincente Minnelli for Gigi
Richard Brooks for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Mark Robson for The Inn of the Sixth Happiness
Robert Wise for I Want to Live!
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
The strongest statement in The Defiant Ones is made in the title sequence, when the screenwriters’ credit comes on the screen. The credits play over a scene of the prison van driving its charges through the stormy night. The guards at the front of the van are played by the movie’s writers, Harold Jacob Smith and Nathan E. Douglas. The latter of the two, blacklisted at the time, is credited as “Nedrick Young” for his work on the Oscar-winning original screenplay, and Kramer places both credits on the screen underneath the images of the two men in silent rebuke of the political oppression of the day.
In The Defiant Ones, Stanley Kramer recognizes the power of images to speak louder than words. Indeed, the chief strength of The Defiant Ones is in its silence—not just the sparse soundtrack, which relies solely on feeble radio broadcasts and Sidney Poitier’s coarse singing for musical accompaniment and uses the distant cries of bloodhounds or the crash of a shelf during a break-in to pierce the tense stillness. Most of all, it’s the power of words left unspoken that resonates throughout this sweltering drama about a black and a white prisoner chained at the ankle and on the run through the deep South. Dispensing with the prolix monologues for which his filmmaking would later be known, Kramer trusts his cast to communicate through a glance or a simple gesture. Racism in this film is so obvious that it can neither be explained nor explained away, and beyond the prediction t the beginning of the film that “they won’t get five miles before they tear each other apart,” the racial conflict is discussed at a minimum. Characters weave in and out of the two escapees’ path to freedom with their hatred, kindness, or fear written plainly on their faces; meanwhile, the men’s mutual animosity grows fitfully into respect through wordless acts of compassion and loyalty.
Of Stanley Kramer’s big Oscar successes as a director, The Defiant Ones is probably his humblest and most successful production. Over the subsequent decade, Kramer would gain note for films like Judgment at Nuremberg and Ship of Fools that fused the two contrasting production modes dominating the post-studio era Academy Awards: the minute, weighty social drama and the widescreen, star-laden spectacular. The Defiant Ones, though, is a film firmly in the camp of the small drama, and benefits immensely from its modest scale. Kramer ably handles his cast, from the dually ferocious marquee performances by Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis to the scattered supporting roles played by newcomers (a convincingly untrustworthy Cara Williams as a single mother who takes them in) and veterans alike (Lon Chaney Jr. as a reluctant member of a lynch mob). Sam Leavitt’s black & white cinematography sparingly depicts nighttime tension during the opening crash scene and a riveting general store break-in, as well as vigorously capturing the daytime chase through the gnarled countryside. Meanwhile, Frederick Knudtson’s editing briskly connects the story of the refugees from justice and their relentless, matter-of-fact pursuit by Theodore Bikel’s sheriff (a clear template for Tommy Lee Jones’ Oscar-winning U.S. Marshall in The Fugitive).
Already an esteemed producer by the time he directed The Defiant Ones (his previous two films had grabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Sound and a DGA nomination between them), Kramer’s restraint in making this film is quite commendable. I’ve talked before about the tendency for social message films to have a short shelf life, but the film’s unfussy interpersonal drama (especially compared to the pedantry that would characterize his later efforts) enables it to hold up particularly well. The recurring shots of two bodies bounding through the brush in unspoken coordination, or the climactic image of one man’s hand reaching out to clasp the other’s, retain their humble moral power in their simplicity.
In addition to a curtain call victory for Vincente Minnelli, one of the last giants of the studio era, the 1958 Best Director field featured debut nominations for three directors who would dominate the Oscar landscape in the following decade: Kramer, Robert Wise, and Richard Brooks. All three would go on to helm tremendous productions, but in this early test of their mettle, Kramer to my surprise displays the best work (despite Robert Wise’s chillingly clinical death chamber scene in I Want to Live!). While he retained some of his strong instincts as a filmmaker in the outsize productions to come (Judgment at Nuremberg features one of the best thematic uses of a camera zoom that I’ve ever seen), in my opinion none of his later films possess the consistently strong filmmaking that established him as the best of 1958’s nominees.