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with research and help from Gary Teetzel
Roger Corman's The Intruder was far too gutsy and truthful for Hollywood in 1961, and probably still is. It holds a number of surprises beyond its honest take on race relations in the early 60s, post- Little Rock but pre- the murder of the civil rights workers. It can boast an unflinchingly authentic milieu, provided by shooting in real Southern towns and utilizing the real racist attitudes of their citizens. Its story refuses to pull any punches (at least until the end, as I'll explain). And it has an excellent performance from William Shatner, who I'll take as an oily villain over a bland hero any day.
Opportunist-provocateur Adam Cramer (William Shatner) slips into the small Southern town of Caxton just before the start of the school year and goes to work stirring up hatred and bigotry among the white locals. The new integration laws decree that blacks may attend the same schools as whites, which the population, taking the law-abiding lead of newspaperman Tom McDaniel (Frank Maxwell), has more or less accepted. Cramer enlists the support of local big shot bigot Verne Shipman (Robert Emhardt) while inflaming the hostility already present in the local layabouts. He finds time to court a married woman in his rooming house (Jeanne Cooper) while her salesman husband (Leo Gordon) is away. He also puts the moves on McDaniel's teenaged daughter Ella (Beverly Lunsford). With speeches that incite near-riots, Cramer's intimidation tactics incite a flurry of Klan activity because even the most casually 'nice' white citizen on the street is resolutely against integration. The only law is a do-nothing sheriff who is practically part of the mob himself. Before the issue is resolved, Caxton will be thrown into a racial firestorm of fear, hatred, and vicious violence.
In 1961, Hollywood's strongest statement about the race situation was Stanley Kramer and Nedrick Young's 1958 The Defiant Ones. That movie hid behind a convenient allegorical form and an attitude that assured us that human decency would triumph because racial differences were no more divisive than the acting styles of Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier. The Intruder has the rare combination of being excellently directed and acted while appearing totally authentic: filmed in a real Southern town and enacted mostly by people who knew (and maybe even lived) the racist roles they played. It must have been an act of bravery by the 'intruding' Hollywood filmmakers, who basically smuggled their movie out from under the noses of local segregationists. Corman relates in the interesting interview included on the disc that the final scene was edited from a combination of three locales. This was necessary because local sheriffs caught wind of the filmmakers' liberal game and tossed them out of town after town.
The well-intentioned similar film Black Like Me fails because it relies too heavily on the gimmick of James Whitmore with his skin dyed black. The Intruder, even with villainous Adam Cramer at its center, never loses a feeling of fairness and (until the end) truth, no matter how ruthless things become. This is the real South; words like Coon and Nigger aren't used for shock value, but because they're everyday vocabulary for everyone from garage mechanics to polite boardinghouse landladies.
The 'racists' in The Intruder aren't defined as an unenlightened white minority - they're everyone! This daring assertion goes against the grain of movie presentation before and afterward. In the powerful Phenix City Story from 1955, the decent white folk crusading against vice were all God-fearing law-abiders and avid supporters of black rights. It's the monstrous, mouth-breathing criminal element that mistreats the blacks and throws a murdered black child on the hero's lawn with the note, 'Your kids are next.' 70s Blaxploitation repeated the same mistake by typing Southern racists as buffoons for the black heroes to knock over like so many tenpins -- just eliminate a few Sheriff Peppers (the fat cop stereotype from Live and Let Die) and all will be well. There's nothing threatening, nothing challenging in that.1
The father in the normal white McDaniel family in The Intruder is a newspaperman. During his main speech, he editorializes for justice and speaks out against Cramer. But when honcho Verne Shipman threatens him with his job, McDaniel is forced to run Cramer's vicious ads. The usual liberal mistake in movies about race is to make this kind of white character the central focus of the film. I'm thinking about Richard Attenborough's disastrous Cry Freedom!, where the story of Apartheid in South Africa is portrayed mainly as a dilemma for a white reporter. The Intruder's white liberal McDaniel isn't supported by anyone, not even his own family. His redneck father-in-law openly condemns him for his convictions. His wife (Katherine Smith) tries to back him up but confesses she hasn't a clue why he's escorting black kids to school. His daughter is easy prey for the charming Cramer's murderous schemes. And these are the nice, decent people! Racism in The Intruder is a bland universal state, not some special circumstance or a character flaw in a few selected villains. McDaniel takes the side of integration simply because his commitment to the law is stronger than his feelings about blacks, one way or another.
In Savant's book, the maturity of this conception gives Beaumont, Corman and co., known for genre films, the crown of American liberal-issue filmmaking. Gentleman's Agreement and Pinky are apologetic compared to the direct gutsiness of The Intruder.
Roger Corman's film moves fast and has a vibrant naturalism to its characters, locals who were either good amateur actors or very well directed by Corman. Again, this doesn't look like a Corman quickie with cheap coverage of scenes - it's a real movie and it grabs hold of you. No fewer than three writers associated with horror, fantasy and science fiction are in the cast: George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan and Charles Beaumont. Perhaps they were the only ones crazy enough to accompany Corman on this dangerous filmic mission!
Charles Beaumont's script is from his own novel. His adaptation seems to have deleted a lot of unwelcome-sounding psychobabble that explains the source of Adam Cramer's racism.2 As Savant correspondent Gary Teetzel reports:
"The book, Beaumont's third, was published in 1959 by Putnam. His first had been a short story collection called The Hunger and Other Stories; this was followed by a book about racing An Omnibus of Speed, co-written with William F. Nolan.
The movie is quite faithful to the novel except for leaving out the (clumsy) explanation of Cramer's background. In the book, the newspaper editor asks a friend with a big city paper to look into Cramer's background. A reporter and a cameraman are put on the job. In one chapter they interview Cramer's mother, learning about his sickly childhood, and how she destroyed his sense of self-esteem. In another chapter they interview a black college buddy of Cramer's. He tells them that Cramer had never espoused racist views and even dated some black women. However, he fell under the spell of a professor named Max Blake, who spouted pseudo Nietzchean theories and advocated dictatorship as the best form of government.
The reporters run a story about Cramer. The story damages Professor Blake's reputation, and he goes to Caxton to try to talk Cramer out of his racist rabble-rousing. Cramer is disillusioned when he sees that his hero is unwilling to put his theories into practice, and the two have a falling-out. [Note: This sounds like a twist from Alfred Hitchcock's Rope]
Also trimmed from the novel: a lot of back story on Viola Griffin, the married woman Cramer sleeps with. She's a former prostitute, and in a horribly dated bit of late-50s Freudian analysis Beaumont pegs her as a nymphomaniac! He never uses that word, though. You'll recall in the movie that the husband says she's, "... Got a kind of sickness. The doctors have a name for it." There's also much more on the newspaper editor's daughter, and her relationship with Cramer."
The Intruder falls into none of the liberal-schmiberal traps of the films cited above, and as Gary points out, sagely avoids pinning Adam Cramer with dime store motivations (as can be found in yet another woeful movie about racism / fascism, Pressure Point). When something this unusual is rolling along so well, Savant always dreads the moment when the perfection breaks down. There is a misstep in the scene where the cuckolded salesman (probably the best work of Corman regular Leo Gordon) threatens Cramer with a gun, only to spout a few awkward lines that ring false in comparison to the virtuosity of practically every other scene. Then, just as it looks like Adam Cramer is going to turn Caxton into Sodom and Gomorrah, a contrived and familiar twist defuses the situation, making the last five minutes of The Intruder end like many another cautionary tale. We can practically see the movie take wing and fly south, right about the time that the courageous black student Joey Greene (Charles Barnes) is tied to a children's swing instead of marched to the nearest tree. The worst is avoided, and the pretender Cramer is unmasked as a cowardly wimp. It's false because the whole gist of the story until then is that the powder keg lit by Cramer is self-perpetuating and unstoppable. Once a lynch mob is in motion, nothing less than Angels with Fiery Swords can defuse it, and that's dramatically known as Deus Ex Machina, or, for short, a copout.
This has little effect on the power of the movie, probably because there simply is no way to place a satisfactory resolution on an issue that in real life is stubbornly unresolved. Adam Cramer is brought low because of his sexual appetites, not his racial ideas, and we really don't believe it when the town's vicious lynch mob is chastened into retreat. In real life, the Cramers of this world temper their acts somewhat and become Congressmen. And although plenty of conservatives are caught in sleazy sexual acts, their numbers aren't that much greater than liberal offenders.
The only movies that Savant can think of that precede The Intruder as credible statements about the ignoble truth of civic mobs are The Well and Cy Endfield's Try and Get Me!3 Elia Kazan's Wild River has certain plot similarities and does a good job of including a racial element among its several themes. In it, Northerner Montgomery Clift intrudes on Southern ways and comes up against the race question, but leaves it properly unresolved, as it is in reality. Every other movie on the subject that Savant has seen is botched from its conception or hindered by precious liberal sermonizing.
Buena Vista's DVD of The Intruder is a good disc but does not improve on the 2001 New Concorde release. The transfer appears the same except the new disc is open-matte and the old one was matted to 1:78 or so. The B&W image has the exact same wear as the previous edition. The fluid camerawork in the real streets and rural shantytowns is well served on the DVD, and the audio is clear, especially for location sound on a low budget film (I'm assuming all those local accents are genuine). This printing has no trailer. Remembering The Intruder is a too-brief new interview featurette with both Roger Corman and William Shatner -- this is one movie that could have used a full commentary.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. far beyond the pale of idiocy in this regard is Mississippi Burning. The perfect movie about Race for the Reagan years, it sets up the F.B.I. as the champions of the civil rights movement, defending liberals against rural Southern rednecks, like The Lone Rangers of the A.C.L.U.. Even if it was made by the Englishman Alan Parker, the movie comes off as a monumental perversion of historical fact, right up there with For Whom The Bell Tolls implying that Gary Cooper is fighting for the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War.
2. The choice of the name Adam would seem to be Beaumont's hint that racism was part of man's character from the beginning of time ...
3. Try and Get Me! (The Sound of Fury) is about lynching, but focuses on the same California lynching of two white murder/kidnap suspects that inspired Fritz Lang's Fury. Unlike The Intruder, it takes the terror all the way. Unfortunately, Try and Get Me! is also compromised by a subplot with an Italian busybody who constantly lectures to the audience on human rights.
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