Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Intruder (USA, 1961)

(A.k.a. The Stranger, Shame, I Hate Your Guts.) A forgotten and completely unexpected minor masterpiece of social realism from the king of teenage exploitation, Roger Corman, who, after almost a decade of directing exploitation and trash decided to make a message film. Taking place in the Deep South, but actually filmed Missouri (which nitpickers refer to as the Mid-South), and starring an at that time young, unknown William Shatner, this Corman film is a far cry from the commercially successful exploitation films he had made up until that point, even if the film's budget of $100,000.00 placed the film squarely into Corman's realm of low budget filmmaking. Written by Charles Beaumont, who was not only a regular Twilight Zone contributor and script writer of a variety of Corman’s Poe films, but also played the school's principal in the film, the story itself had originally been inspired by a 1957 article in Look magazine narrating the actions of one John Casper, who had tried to subvert the integration of schools in Clinton, Tennessee. An angry, unsettling film that leaves a nasty, embarrassed aftertaste in one's mouth, The Intruder ended up being one of Corman's first box office failures, despite having both won an award at the Venice Film Festival and receiving positive critical attention. 
Filmed in black and white, the film opens with William Shatner, as the sleazily charming racist Adam Cramer, arriving in a small southern town still angry at being forced to desegregate the local school. Proud of being "free, white and American," Cramer begins a virtual game of chess using the town's people's emotions and racist hatred to stir up an hornet's nest of malevolence which results in, amongst other things, the revival of the KKK, the half-blinding of the town's mildly liberal newspaper editor, the bombing of a black church and the near-lynching of a young, innocent black student. From the moment the sweet little old lady who runs the local hotel starts talking about "niggas," one knows that The Intruder isn't a feel good film. By the end of The Intruder, the viewer can't help but be sickened by the innate stupidity of the ass-backwards attitude of the town's population (and racists in general). Shatner, who loses his accent occasionally, does nonetheless a convincing job as an amoral, power hungry and smooth-operating manipulator unable to control the very forces and power he instigates and so craves. The townspeople themselves, played by the actual inhabitants of Charleston, are also convincing, if only because, in all likelihood, they only were expressing what they actually believed. (Beaumont, for example, instigated unintentional problems and got labeled a "blonde nigger lover" for sharing a cup of coffee with his black co-star, while Shatner himself recollects that in general during the filming, "(Their) lives were threatened.")
The film is
slightly flawed by an unconvincing "happy" ending, but by the unnerving last 10 minutes, when Shatner loses control of the mob/monster that he has created and they begin to beat and emotionally torture the young black man they obviously plan to lynch, the overall accumulative effect of The Intruder is so disturbingly sickening that the inconsistency remains virtually unnoticed. (I, for one, find it unconvincing that the crowd would feel ashamed about their original intentions of lynching the student when it is revealed that Shatner had set the young man up for something he didn't do, especially when one considers that some townspeople had already bombed the local black community's church, killing the minister.)
All said, The Intruder is a brutal, sickening and powerful film that deserves rediscovery. Watch it, now.

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