Obscure Film Friday: Roger Corman’s The Intruder (1962)

Who would ever have thought that Corman + Shatner would = great film-making?

Don’t get me wrong, I loves me some Roger Corman. He’s the undisputed king of the “B” movie. His ability to work fast, cheap, and turn a profit is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Equally legendary has been his patronage and tutelage to aspiring young film-makers and actors. Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson — just a few of the A-list names who got their big break from Corman. He’s a good egg in an often-rotten industry.

For all those accolades, though, one doesn’t normally associate Corman films with serious or controversial subject matters, or an overt political bent. Corman makes low-budget popcorn flicks. Less charitable types might call it schlock, or even (in less delicate company) “crap.” I think both those terms are a bit unfair, as Corman’s films are usually well-done for their niche, are always entertaining, and occasionally have a clever wit to them. The underlying satire of pop culture and our love of action and violence in his 1970’s drive-in classic Death Race 2000 borders on the sublime. But even I will admit, Corman’s not usually the guy you think of when it comes to tackling the great social issues of the day on the big screen. I mean, this is the same Roger Corman who brought us She Gods of the Shark Reef, and The Man with X-Ray Eyes.

So, with that in mind, it came with considerable surprise when I stumbled upon a copy of The Intruder on YouTube one night a while back. In perhaps the most atypical outing of his long film career, Corman sets aside his familiar themes of warrior vixens and Poe-inspired horror to bring to life an honest and unflinching look at race relations and racism during the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s.

The Intruder takes place in the fictional southern town of Caxton. The time is the early 1960s, and the mood is one of both dissatisfaction and resignation. The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 have become law, striking down (among other things), the segregation of the local high school. In a few days, black students are going to be able to attend the formerly whites-only school. The opposition to the new way of things is widespread, but tempered by the acceptance that it is now the law.

Adam Cramer arrives in Caxton

Enter Adam Cramer (William Shatner). The film opens with Cramer riding into town on a bus, sporting a spiffy white suit, and an agenda. We know from the tension-hook music and the POV camera shot on the impoverished areas outside of town, that it is not a benevolent agenda. In fact, Cramer has come to town to preach a particular gospel, one that will bode ill for the town and its inhabitants: Nullification.

Introducing himself as a representative of a group calling itself The Patrick Henry Society (a purely fictional entity, btw, that has no relationship at all to a current organization that goes by the same name), and as a self-styled “social worker” of sorts, Cramer immediately begins to take the measure of the town. He is not disappointed by what he finds. Before the five-minute mark of the film, we see the gracious, grandmotherly woman running the local boarding house joke with Cramer that her lazy, slow-moving helper “must have some [racial slur] blood in him somewhere.” It’s a shocking statement, both in its casualness and in its source.

Not all of the town’s citizens are so blunt about their feelings. Some, like town elder Verne Shipman (played by Indiana native Robert Emhardt), are a bit more circumspect in their opposition — “That’s a stupid question to ask, young man. I’m a southerner” — but the consensus is the same. No one is happy about the law, but they accept that it is the law. This is Cramer’s opening, which Shatner plays with a convincing and ugly enthusiasm. “Whose law?” is his retort — referring to the classic arguments of legal nullification, going back to John C. Calhoun and before. Cramer argues the will of the people has been thwarted by federal judges and the like, and that he can help the people of Caxton to overturn the new laws — and, most importantly, do it legally.

Word of Cramer’s message spreads quickly through town, and in keeping with the film’s brisk pace, we aren’t 10 minutes into the film when we are introduced to the character who will represent the voice of the opposition. Tom McDaniel (Frank Maxwell) is the editor of the local newspaper, who opposes desegregation and fought the movement with newspaper article after newspaper article. Like so many others in Caxton, he has accepted defeat and the rule of law. Unlike others, he is not eager to see the arrival of a man like Adam Cramer. He does not like the message Cramer is bringing with him, and he does not like the effect his presence has had on the town already.

We get the full measure of McDaniel’s character, and to an extent, the sensibilities of the film, in a powerful scene at the family dinner table at the McDaniel house. The grandfather sings Cramer’s praises, mixing in some truly ugly racial slurs and general bigotry. McDaniel explodes in anger, laying into the grandfather for what he has said. He doesn’t like the new law, but he doesn’t want his teen-aged daughter exposed to that sort of hatred, or for her to grow up thinking that kind of sentiment is okay. It’s a stark reminder of the vibe Corman is going for in The Intruder.

There’s no noble, above-it-all character like Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in The Intruder. Such men (and women) rarely exist in the real world, and Corman doesn’t try to sell us on the idea that there’s one to be found in Caxton this day. Instead, we have Tom McDaniel, a man who is, for lack of a better term, a moderate racist. It’s an approach that brings both nuance and realism to the film in a very succinct manner, which is in keeping with screenwriter Charles Beaumont’s style and Corman’s efficient film-making.

In keeping with that theme of realism, Corman made the interesting decision to cast non-actors in many of the smaller parts. The film was shot on location in Charleston, Missouri, and many of the smaller parts are played by locals. One might argue that the penny-pinching Corman was thinking in terms of budget, and you’d probably be at least partly right. But it also made for some interesting performances. One of the more notable parts is that of Joey Green, played by Charles Brown. Joey is one of the black students who is looking forward to attending the high school. His role is small at first, but becomes crucial late in the film. The fascinating part about Brown is that he had been a football player at the real-life high school used in the film, and was part of the first class of African-American students to attend the school after desegregation. In an interview, Corman relates that he advised Brown not to try to act the part, but to draw on the real-life feelings and experiences he had as part of that first class. It’s an effective technique.

If there is a flaw in the film, it’s perhaps in the exposing of Adam Cramer’s weaknesses of character a bit too early for my liking. By weaknesses, I’m not referring to his racism or his slick conman’s sensibilities. I mean in the sense that we learn of the character’s potential Achilles Heel(s) not even half-way through the film. Granted, with a run-time of only 84 minutes, there is not a lot of time to waste in foreshadowing how the character might succeed or fail. Still, it felt a bit premature to me. Fortunately, these scenes are handled very well, with Shatner playing off veteran character actor Leo Gordon. Gordon, who plays a roughnecked, boisterous traveling salesman named Sam Griffin, is another character whose role starts small, but grows exponentially in importance late in the film.

As Cramer’s fortunes rise in Caxton, so does the scope of his hatred. Desegregation is no longer merely the thwarting of the will of the people, it is a *conspiracy*. A conspiracy based on the familiar theme of anti-Semitism, and playing upon the fears of communism and communist plots. Like a Svengali, Adam Cramer exhorts to the crowd that they’ve been lied to — by the politicians, the judges, the media — and that he’s there to show them the *truth*. Cramer clearly revels in the spotlight, and we get a growing sense of his own ambition. We also see with growing horror, what is taking place amongst the townspeople.

Were this a typical Hollywood production, I would probably be figuring out how to write a spoiler-free summary about the inevitable cinematic climax to the film, complete with a clear-cut triumph of good over evil — or its reverse — and the dawn of a brighter (or darker) day. Real life isn’t like that, however, and Corman wisely avoids traditional film clichés. The final half-hour of The Intruder is the film at its ugliest, and also its most human. Corman packs a lot of ideas into those final minutes: the psychology of the mob and a lesson in the creation of a Frankenstein’s monster, but also the ability to find a voice of conscience in even the most flawed of us, and the ability to ever so gradually change our minds and our hearts. It’s a most non-Hollywood solution to a very non-Hollywood film, and it’s damned effective.

The Intruder (7.8 rating on IMDB).

Available on DVD and (for now) free on Youtube.

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One aging Gen-X-er’s thoughts on life, humor, film, and whatever else tickles my fancy at the moment.

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Interestingly…Or Not

One aging Gen-X-er’s thoughts on life, humor, film, and whatever else tickles my fancy at the moment.