A stormy night, and through the rain travels a prison truck transporting convicts chained together, though one of them is proving disruptive: Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier), who insists on singing along the journey. The man he is chained to at the wrist, "Joker" Jackson (Tony Curtis) has had enough and spits a racial slur at him to get him to shut up, which leads to a stand up argument, distracting the driver and guard just enough to get them to almost crash into another vehicle heading in the opposite direction. They may have missed that, but it doesn't stop the truck careering through the fence at the side of the road and into a ditch - allowing Cullen and Jackson a taste of freedom.
Stanley Kramer is regarded now, as he was at the time, as the great issues-led, liberal filmmaker of his era, with all the admiration and problems that would bring. Starting in the nineteen-fifties, he began to listen to his conscience and produce a selection of what could best be described as "talking point" movies, where the idea was to set out a political or social problem facing The United States or further afield and have the audience emerge from the theatre deep in discussion, with any luck agreeing with Kramer's opinions on said matters. The Defiant Ones was the first to really be blatant about its message-making, contributing to the civil rights drama that was playing out in the headlines.
He could have made this the portrayal of a dyed in the wool white bigot chained to a saintly black man, possibly arrested on trumped up charges, so that we would be in no doubt who was the goodie and who was the baddie, yet Kramer had a more nuanced approach that not many would credit him with. There's no doubt Cullen has been convicted for almost killing someone in anger, though there was the question of how far he was provoked and since this was the Deep South there was no way he would be let off on grounds of diminished responsibility, or the effects of racism as it could be termed in his case. Similarly, Jackson is a product of a racist society, and there's no doubt he deserves to be locked up.
However, there's nothing Hollywood likes more than a redemption tale, and we warm to Jackson just as Cullen does over the course of what for this director was a pretty lean, single-minded thriller with dramatic trappings. What connected it with twenty-first century acting as far as generating respect went was the sense that these two stars were going through an experience, mostly performing their own stunts, that was as gruelling as the one their characters were suffering: ever since Robert De Niro in Raging Bull informed the quality of performance as linked to physicality stars have commanded adulation for putting themselves through physical challenges, it's a macho thing that audiences respond to, whether it's Tom Cruise hanging off the side of a plane or Leonardo DiCaprio eating raw liver in the wilderness.
Here, Poitier and Curtis genuinely pushing themselves to the limit was linked to their dedication to demand the viewers' respect, and their respect for the wider picture Kramer wished to convey on a social level. As the title characters are pursued by a bunch of colourful types keen to get the chance to kill someone with legal justification (though Sheriff Theodore Bikel has a more measured state of mind, a fine supporting performance among a selection of excellent work from the cast) they get to know each other better, and the wrestling and bickering transforms into mutual agreement that maybe the man they're chained to is not so bad after all. Indeed, such is the potency of this relationship that it produced a bromance between two, let's face it, matinee idol handsome men seeing the only threat from a woman (Cara Williams) to try and break them up thwarted when their bond is greater - this could be read a couple of ways, though one imagines Kramer was keen to promote racial harmony in a world that seemed set on keeping us all apart and prejudiced. A neat suspense piece with muscular action, and a lesson to be learned too: unsubtle, but not a bad combination.
[Eureka have released this in a pristine Blu-ray, with as extras the trailer and an interview with Kim Newman (he suggests the film could be rediscovered by the gay audience - judging by all those gifs shipping Poitier and Curtis, it already has been).]