50th Anniversary of THE INTRUDER

14 May

50 years ago today, Roger Corman’s film, THE INTRUDER, opened in New York City. It was a low-budget black-and-white drama about the topical issue of school integration, which was all over the headlines as southern cities and towns were facing demonstrations on behalf of civil rights and court orders to integrate schools and public facilities. The film follows the activities of Adam Cramer, a charismatic young white man who comes to a southern town that has been issued a court order to integrate its local high school. He ingratiates himself with the local power brokers and gradually reveals his mission: to instigate opposition to integration and get the local people to rally on their own to stop it. It’s never clear who exactly is paying Cramer, but he seems to be working on behalf of some shadowy backers.

The film takes us into the homes of various citizens in the town including a white girl named Ella McDaniel who seems perfectly willing to accept her school’s integration and is backed up by her father, the local newspaper editor, although her mother is opposed to it. We meet the family of Joey Greene, a brave young black student who is called upon to lead the procession of black students on their first day of admission. They travel quite a gauntlet of hecklers on their way into school. We get to meet a lot of the citizens and hear from their own mouths their honest reactions to the issue. A lot of racial epithets are hurled. It’s an unvarnished, unflinching look at the state of race relations in the south at the time.

Day by day, as the integration proceeds, Cramer raises the incitement level until violence breaks out, but it’s not enough to keep the black students away from the school. Only when Ella is coerced into luring Joey into a trap and accusing him of attempted rape, does it look like the whole effort will collapse. A lynch mob soon forms and the townspeople who know right from wrong have to face a crisis of conscience. The whole final section is a bit too melodramatic for the film to have registered more strongly with the critics of the time. It had its champions, but not enough to give it the national recognition it deserved.  Stanley Kauffmann, reviewing the film in The New Republic, wrote that the film had “a chilling veracity, which is finally dispelled by a totally incredible happy ending.”

The cast is topped by a mix of Hollywood actors, including William Shatner as Cramer, Frank Maxwell as McDaniel, the newspaper editor, Robert Emhardt as the local power broker, Beverly Lunsford as Ella, and Leo Gordon and Jeanne Cooper as a couple visiting the town on business whose marital tensions are exploited by Cramer. Three writers appear in the film: William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson play local racists, while Charles Beaumont, the film’s screenwriter and author of the novel on which it’s based, plays the school principal. Most of the rest of the cast were non-professionals recruited from the locations where they shot, the most prominent being Charles Barnes who plays Joey with a quiet dignity. Shatner’s usual flamboyance is perfectly attuned to the character’s delusions of grandeur. There’s an almost demonic quality as he addresses the townspeople and appeals to their worst instincts. It’s also pretty startling to hear the future Captain Kirk asking a cabbie to take him to “Niggertown.”

According to Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Life, by Beverly Gray, “For reasons of authenticity as well as cost control, the feature was shot entirely on location, primarily in Sikeston, Missouri, near the Arkansas border.” She goes on to say: “Everyone involved agrees that by lensing this story in towns where it could have happened, Corman and crew were courting real danger. For three weeks they dodged sheriffs, eluded threats of violence, and sidestepped accusations that they were communists.”

Unfortunately, the movie did not get the widespread distribution it deserved. As Gray tells it:

“Corman’s distribution deal with Pathé American ultimately fell through, and the film languished. Later reissues of The Intruder under such titles as The Stranger and I Hate Your Guts hardly helped. At the time of the picture’s May 1962 release, Corman told Show magazine, ‘I didn’t make The Intruder to make money or lose money. I believe in the subject. I’m just hoping for a good public response. If I can only get back what I put in, why, then I’ll make more pictures like this. If not, there’s always horror.’  These words proved to be prophetic. As Corman has often said, The Intruder was the first film on which he ever lost money. Stung by the experience of going into the red with a message movie, he immediately returned to the safe territory of horror. His next project was The Premature Burial (1962).”

According to Gray, the film cost $70, 000. This was the 33rd film Corman had directed in seven years.

Corman abandoned hard-hitting social issue dramas and simply inserted those issues into more commercial exploitation genres, as he did a few years later with THE WILD ANGELS (1966), a biker movie, and THE TRIP (1967), a counterculture drug excursion, both of which are as profound in their way as THE INTRUDER was. I’ve seen most of the movies Corman directed and I tend to lean towards THE INTRUDER and THE WILD ANGELS as the two best examples of his directing talent. Both of them are just as powerful, to me, when viewed today as they must have been back when they were released. Later on, when Corman was producing R-rated drive-in movies for his own company, New World Pictures, he made sure that feminist sentiments infused such films as NIGHT CALL NURSES, CAGED HEAT and BIG BAD MAMA, to go along with the copious female nudity. (Not exactly on the socially conscious level of THE INTRUDER, if you ask me.)

I’ve always lamented the fact that Corman stopped directing. While his work as producer boosted the careers of such then up-and-comers as Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Robert Towne, Joe Dante, Ron Howard and James Cameron, and his work as distributor boosted the stateside profiles of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut, among others, I still prefer the films he directed.

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