“I swear, I believe that boy's got nigger blood in him somewhere.”
When a quaint old hotelier utters that line after making an early crack about her lazy hotel clerk ‘taking root' in front of the TV, and says it in the most genial, disarming tone, the jaw drops right down to the floor, where it stays for most of the running time of this daring statement on integration after the U.S. Supreme Court made segregation illegal.
Director Roger Corman knew he was embarking on a risky venture, and instead of filming in California, he chose to amp up the film's authencity by shooting in a Southern community with a history of generational divisions that were still raw. He gave a less inflammatory script to the locals, which made it easier to get permission to shoot in various locales using non-actors in several roles, and Corman arranged the tight schedule so that no one really knew what the film was actually about, with a pivotal cross burning sequence left until the last day of shooting; by that point, if anyone was ready to tar and feather the cast and crew, the whole caravan would be out of town and out of the local sheriff's jurisdiction.
Legendary for being the one film Corman lost money on because he chose to make a straight drama and topical message picture, The Intruder was based on Charles Beaumont's meaty novel about an agitator who worms his way into sensitive communities and presses the right buttons to bring to a boil enough subjugated hatred before trotting off to another town, rekindling racial hatred in calculated baby steps to gradually mobilize a hefty voting body committed to overturning the Supreme Court's ruling.
By 1961, William Shatner had done a tremendous amount of stage and live TV dramas, both contemporary and classical, yet his feature film roles were few and far between; he was either cast in youth-oriented films, playing a teacher in The Explosive Generation (1961), or in classical tales like The Brothers Karamazov (1958) in secondary roles. It is interesting that he also appeared in Stanley Kramer's topical Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), but then half of Hollywood was cast in Serious Superproductions, and the early sixties was filled with message pictures tall, long, and grandiloquent, geared to educate the masses while aiming for profits and awards by honing in on hot-button topics.
Unlike the family-targeted To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Intruder was aimed strictly at adults, and the language and imagery (with Shatner at one point gesturing a hand-job action to a character) within this potent little film could only have been made by independent filmmakers. Corman still kept an eye on sensational elements – Shatner is a slick sleaze-ball who taunts a nympho (played Young & the Restless' Jeanne Cooper, looking very hot & bothered) and dates the high school daughter of the pro-integration paper editor – but nothing feels contrived or derivative, and that may be due to Beaumont's adaptation that retains all of the main character qualities and tone that made his novel such a dynamic read, plus the fact Corman sunk his own money into the film when no one wanted to invest in a message movie.
The performances are first-rate – Shatner knew this was a role that would test his film acting chops – as are the subtle chores by the locals who appeared in bit parts and supporting roles, particularly Charles Barnes as the local boy who's accused of raping a white girl, and Walter Kurtz as the editor's father-in-law whose disgust for integration remains iron hard. Veteran character actor Leo Gordon is also memorable as the affable, traveling salesman who discovers he's been cuckolded by Shatner, and instead of going bonkers, he becomes the film's moral auger in the climactic polarizing encounter in a schoolyard.
Corman's direction is letter-perfect, and that's due to the tight script and the fact he admitted to caring deeply about the film's message; the scenes are cleverly choreographed to reveal racism in discrete looks and subtle comments, followed by rabid vituperation and frightening explosions of anger.
The culmination of this mounting rage occurs at the end when the newspaper's owner (clearly the wealthiest man in town, living in a Georgian plantation mansion) smacks the schoolboy for not addressing him as “Sir.” It's a terrifying transformation because it illustrates how Shatner has completely lost control of the mob as it gives in to seething, multi-generational anger.
Robert Emhardt initially portrays the local vassal as a man initially resigned to the Supreme Court's ruling, and while he becomes more forthright in asserting his still-shackled racism around the film's midsection, his dual assaults to the teen in the final scene are calculated in their direct brutality; he's clealry done this many times in the past, and has no guilt smacking a kid.
The film's failure at the box office may have been due to a largely unknown cast made by an exploitation filmmaker whose film was too raw for audiences attuned towards major studio productions; reduced to doing the rounds in smaller and drive-in theatres, the film may have been sold as another hot-topic exploitation film, but it lacked the combination of action, violence, and sleaze audiences expected to see, double-billed with flicks about monsters, aliens, sexpots, or juvenile delinquents.
After the film's fast disappearance from theatre screens, the veteran character actors among its cast moved on to other projects, some of the minor actors floundered or disappeared, and Shatner went back to TV, popping up in odd feature films like Martin Ritt's The Outrage (1964) and Leslie Stevens' dull Ingmar Bergman riff, filmed in Esperanto, The Incubus (1965), before Star Trek came to Shatner's rescue in 1966. Director Corman went back to the profitable Edgar Allan Poe films AIP were insisting he continue making, and composer Herman Stein never really scored a film of such caliber, as he too went back to scoring primarily TV series.
The sincerity and craftsmanship of The Intruder may have eradicated the memory of his unfortunate screenwriting experience with the ridiculous Queen of Outer Space (1958), but writer Charles Beaumont returned to Poe territory with Corman and penned a few more films, plus several more Twilight Zone episodes. The Intruder is also bit of a curio for not only giving Beaumont a significant acting role as a school teacher, but for casting fellow genre writers in small parts, too: George Clayton Johnson (co-author of Logan's Run) and William F. Nolan (Logan's Run, and The Norliss Tapes) appear as two racist slime-balls.
Long unavailable, The Intruder popped up in the nineties via Connoisseur Video in England, and that PAL VHS tape was the only way to see a decent print of this ‘lost' cult film, sourced from the BFI (and bearing the idiotic reissue title, I Hate Your Guts).
Corman later released the film via his Concord label on DVD in 2001, and while a crisp transfer, it had one major flaw: the 1.33:1 film was matted to 1.85:1, cropping the image and mucking up the compositions. The film's mono audio mix was never very clean, and the original dub track had some drifting sync issues in the opening hotel scene.
Another flaw is a sudden loss of frames when Shatner enters the hotel. The shot breaks apart twice, and whereas the Concord and current Buena Vista [BV] DVDs adjusted the audio to smoothen the continuity leaps, the BFI transfer added black frames for the missing footage, which made the jumbled shot less jarring.
The BV release contains a short featurette that intercuts separately conducted interviews with Shatner and Corman, and they both go over the major anecdotes, whereas the deleted Concord release contains an half hour (!) Q&A between the actor and director in front of an unseen audience, while film clips (in their correct ratio) play above the two. Taped around 2001, it's the best tally of the events that led to Corman's interest in the novel, where the film was shot, and some anecdotes not covered in the BV DVD, nor Ed Naha's otherwise superb 1982 book, The Films of Roger Corman.
Why this Q&A was left off the current DVD is a mystery; it's straight talking heads with a few intercut scenes, but the two provide valuable and intriguing background info largely absent from the BV disc. (Shatner's commentary on The Incubus DVD is a deadly dull, meandering, and horribly scattershot snoozefest; so for Shatner, The Intruder Q&A is a more ideal venue wherein he keeps his thoughts personable, fresh, and well-paced.)
The Concord disc also includes a timeline on the Civil Rights Movement, and a quartet of cast/crew bios, so whereas the BV disc carries the better transfer, the Concord release offers the best extras (and uses Stein's score over the menus, which BV ignored in favour of moody stereo synth music that has nothing to do with the film).
For fans, this all means the need to have both editions, unless BV decides to release a definitive edition.
Note: to read an interview with producer David Schecter on MMM's CD and Herman Stein's career, click HERE !
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan