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Intruder, The (1962)
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by Jay Seaver

"Roger Corman & William Shatner make a serious issue movie. And it's good!"
4 stars

You might not guess, based on the director (Roger Corman), star (William Shatner), and some of the titles it was released under ("I Hate Your Guts!"), but "The Intruder" is a high point in both men's careers and a pretty daring movie for the early 1960s. For a long time, it was said that this film is the only one on which Roger Corman ever lost money; it is arguably also one of the few where he had ambitions beyond making money. It's still surprisingly powerful today, fifty years after being ripped from the news.

On Monday, the high school in Caxford, Missouri will integrate with ten black students starting classes; a huge deal in 1962. No white person in town seems particularly happy about it; even liberal newspaperman Tom McDaniel (Frank Maxwell) seems more resigned to his daughter Ella (Beverly Lunsford) sitting next to a Negro than anything. At least, until Adam Cramer (Shatner) steps off the bus in his fine white suit. He's a "social activist" member of the "Patrick Henry Society" from Los Angeles (or Washington, depending on who he's talking to), and before he's even checked into his hotel, he's getting people agitated about the school integration. Soon he's making speeches to the townspeople and advances on Ella and Vi Griffin (Jeanne Cooper), the wife of the salesman in the next hotel room (Leo Gordon). Joey Greene (Charles Barnes) didn't expect his first day at his new school to be easy, but if Adam has his way, it may be his last.

The subjects of racism and resistance to the change that integration represents weren't completely absent from the screen in the early 1960s, but it still must have been rare for such volatile news of the day to be addressed so directly, especially at the hands of a guy like Corman who made his name on fun and thrills as opposed to confrontation. In some ways, the exploitation filmmaker in Corman is what makes The Intruder work - where more "respectable" directors might use euphemisms or hints, Corman uses the n-word, pointed hoods and burning crosses the way he might use a mummified corpse or a bucket of blood in a horror movie, tossing the nastiness right into the audience's face to get a visceral reaction. He's not entirely doing a brute-force attack; Corman knows how to create a sense of menace - just check out a great scene where Adam insinuates himself into Vi's hotel room while her husband Sam is away.

Of course, there are some weaknesses; Corman had less budget than he planned on, and sometimes that shows in the supporting cast - though Frank Maxwell, Charles Barnes, and Jeanne Cooper all do fairly well - or in technical matters (there's some pretty bad looping at points). That great scene eventually drifts into exploitation melodrama, and while the black-and-white cinematography by Taylor Byars and urgent music by Herman Stein are each good on their own, some of the juxtaposition is less so.

A huge part of what makes the movie better than its budget is William Shatner, who really should have played more of these smooth, predatory villains. The guy is seriously great, turning on the charm while spewing hate, carrying himself in a way that reminds audiences of Ray Milland's satanic title character in Alias Nick Beal, and showing both a diabolical brain and a smug sense of superiority to not just black people but the white locals he's decided he will lead. He's still Shatner, theatrical and melodramatic, but he's a match for the material; the lack of subtlety in his performance is an indication of just what sort of people the filmmakers think will line up behind him.

And that's indicative of the thrust of the movie - it spends much more time condemning racists than racism. Writer Charles Beaumont (adapting his own novel and also appearing in a small role) never has someone make the argument that a black person is just as capable or deserving as a white one; even the characters who eventually come to support integration don't talk about its rightness as much as the cowardly, violent, and irrational natures of its opponents. The message becomes less that segregation itself is evil and more to see how much substance there is in the arguments made for or against any sort of issue - that people like Adam Cramer cause damage not just for their specific beliefs, but in the way they spur people to action by appealing to the parts of their nature that doesn't think things through.

At first glance, that may seem a bit unsatisfying in terms of the movie's plot - even if Adam is stopped, has anything really changed in this town? And yet, it may be why "The Intruder" is still relevant today - most schools are integrated, but there are still demagogues whipping people into a frenzy with lies and appeals to their baser instincts. As frequently unpolished as this movie can be, it depicts that sort of monster as well as any film has.

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originally posted: 03/16/12 10:31:03
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  14-May-1962 (PG-13)
  DVD: 27-Mar-2001

  N/A (15)


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