Curtis and Poitier are John "Joker" Williams and Noah Cullen, two convicts who are among a group of prisoners being transferred by truck somewhere in the Deep South. When the truck crashes, Noah and Joker make their escape, which is made more difficult by the fact that they're chained to each other.
As Noah and Joker travel cross-country on foot, their mutual racial hostility slowly thaws into shared respect and even something like friendship. Meanwhile, Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel) leads a posse in pursuit of the fugitives.
Trope Codifier for the Chained Heat genre. Received eight Academy Award nominations—Poitier's Best Actor nomination was the first ever given to a black actor. Has been remade many times, including with a Gender Flip as Exploitation Film Black Mama, White Mama and a 1986 Made-for-TV Movie with Carl Weathers and Robert Urich.
The Defiant Tropes:
- Book Ends: Noah singing the same spiritual at the beginning and the end.
- Blackface: In-Universe, it is done out of necessity, to conceal Joker's pale skin when he and Noah are trying to break into a general store.
- Chained Heat: Not the first film to use this trope—it pops up in the Alfred Hitchcock version of The 39 Steps—but the one that made it famous.
- Creator Cameo: Co-screenwriters Nedrick Young and Harold Smith appeared as the drivers of the prison van in the opening scene. Their names pop up in the credits right under their faces in the scene. This was because Young was blacklisted and writing under a pseudonym, and Stanley Kramer wanted him properly credited. (The blacklist lasted until Dalton Trumbo was credited under his own name for Spartacus in 1960.)
- Creepy Crows: A creepy raven gives a scary squawk as Joker and Noah are trying to sneak into the general store.
- Downer Ending: Joker and Noah are captured.
- Have a Gay Old Time: Billy's mom describes her poster as "a scene of gay revelry at the Mardi Gras in old New Orleans".
- Letting Her Hair Down: If the carnivorous glances that Billy's mom was shooting at Joker weren't enough of a mating signal, she makes it even more obvious by unpinning her hair.
- No Name Given: Billy's mother, the sexy abandoned farmer's wife who sleeps with Joker, is never named.
- N-Word Privileges: Joker does not have them, which is what starts the fight in the prisoner transport truck, which is what leads to the crash and their escape.
- Sexy Discretion Shot: The camera pans away as Billy's mom crawls into bed with Joker.
- Sleep Cute: With a very strong dose of Ho Yay, as Joker wakes up after a night in the rain and is startled to find Noah snuggled up next to him.
- Soft Glass: Joker and Noah jump through a glass window, and emerge without a scratch.
- Spiteful Spit: Noah does this to a redneck who is about to lynch him and Joker.
- What You Are in the Dark: Billy's mother casually admits that the swamp she sent Noah into is a death trap—she is afraid that he will rat them out. Joker has the opportunity to run away with her, escaping in her car to certain freedom. Instead, he abandons her and goes into the swamp to save Noah. While not explicitly stated in the film, it seems likely that both Joker (with Billy's mom) and Noah could have continued running separately, for some time.