I knew what this film was about going in. I did not expect it to be funny. Not the whole thing, mind you – but there were definitely running gags and moments that made me laugh out loud.
The main plot is actually a little laughable for other reasons. Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis star as “Noah Cullen” and “John Jackson” respectively, a pair of prisoners on a Southern chain gang who have been shackled together one day on a work detail “because the warden has a sense of humor”. But as their crew is returning from a job, their truck gets into an accident – and Cullen and Jackson escape in the confusion. With the police almost certainly on their tale, the only way that these two can make good on their escape is by learning how to work together.
So, yeah, it’s your standard “black person and white person thrown together by circumstance, they challenge each other’s prejudices, lessons are learned” kind of plot. This might have felt groundbreaking in the 1950s, but is pretty simplistic – I’ve always come away from such films with the notion that the white character hasn’t had their prejudices changed overall, but rather that they’ve learned to make an exception for this one guy. Poitier does have some good monologues about how he resents the expectation that he always has to be “nice” and “not cause trouble” just because of his race, and it is likely that resentment which lead to him ending up in prison (he tells Curtis his story at one point, how he assaulted another man during a struggle in a way that sounds very much like self-defense). It’s exactly the same complaint we’d hear today. But Curtis responds with some nonsense about how “well, that’s just the way things are and you can’t change that”; he hasn’t learned a thing. Both characters end up with a good amount of respect and loyalty for each other over the course of the story – but does that extend to each other’s race as a whole? I’m not so sure. I didn’t buy this kind of thing with Driving Miss Daisy, I didn’t buy it in Green Book, I don’t buy it here.
But that’s all a separate issue from whether it’s fun to watch these two specific men hash things out and come to trust each other – and you know, it is. Each man gets his turn to outsmart the other, each man gets his chance to tease the other. There is some early squabbling and disagreement about what their plan should be, but there is way less of it than I was thinking – and remarkably little of it seems race-based (Curtis initially proposes heading south to a relative who can cut their shackles, and Poitier has to remind him that “being down South would suck for me even after we’re free, dude”). It might have been tedious to see them repeatedly squabbling about who was “in charge”, but fortunately they don’t – they seem to actually get that working together and listening to each other will help them both. There is one uneasy scene where they are facing a lynch mob, and Curtis does appeal to the mob to spare him because he’s white – but the very next scene, he genuinely seems to realize that he was using his whiteness as privilege and seems to regret that. Even better, he seems to figure out how to use that privilege to both of their advantages later on.
And that’s just the main plot. The ongoing police hunt for the pair of fugitives is just as rich a story – and even funnier. The hunt is overseen by local Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), who has a surprisingly laissez-faire attitude towards the search; he regularly overrules the much more aggressive Captain Gibbons (Charles McGraw) who wants to call in additional officers and set up road blocks and escalate the manhunt to a 24/7 fully-militarized operation. I’m sure the intent was to present Muller as fair and open-minded – he has a conversation with a buddy from the local paper in which we learn Muller was once a lawyer – but really, as I told Roommate Russ after the film, it comes across more like if Tommy Lee Jones’ character from The Fugitive was about 3 weeks away from retirement and just didn’t care any more. The rest of the search party is surprisingly quirky; there’s a running gag with the dog handler treating the bloodhounds like pampered poodles, insisting that they get the best food and that they have rest breaks every couple hours. The reporter following the case regularly teases Sheriff Muller about how the search is going.
But my favorite is one guy named “Angus” who has no lines whatsoever, but carries a transistor radio permanently turned on and tuned to a jazz station to the great frustration of Captain Gibbons. There’s a running gag where every other scene or so, as Gibbons and Muller are in the middle of a debate about how to conduct the search, Gibbons eventually interrupts himself to turn to Angus and snap “will you turn that thing off?” And Angus complies. Finally, about mid-film when the search party is on a break, there’s another Gibbons/Muller debate, and this time Gibbons just turns to glare off camera. The next thing we see is the radio propped up against a rock – and after a beat, Angus’ hand timidly reaches down and turns it off. …Best of all – I have learned that Angus was played by former child actor Carl Switzer, best known for playing “Alfalfa” in the Our Gang comedies.