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The Intruder

The Intruder(1962)

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"Social reform," smiles William Shatner when asked what his "line" is. Shatner's character, Adam Cramer, has just arrived in a sleepy southern town, circa 1962. He's well-dressed, polite, good-looking... but it's soon clear that his charms are to be used for an evil agenda: riling up the white townspeople into a frenzy of racial hatred.

The movie is The Intruder (1962), a Roger Corman production famous for three main reasons: first, it was a box-office bomb - the only Corman picture ever to lose money theatrically; second, it's arguably the best movie Corman ever directed; and third, it contains by far William Shatner's best film performance.

Seen in 2007, it's also clear that The Intruder was astonishingly far ahead of its time - and still is. Has there ever been a more honest depiction of racism in an American movie? Shatner pulls into town soon after integration laws have been passed, and the white townspeople, down to a person, are not happy with them, though they do (reluctantly) accept them. Ten black kids are about to join the all-white local school, and the citizens have basically resigned themselves to the new law. Shatner poses the question, "Whose law?", to anyone who will listen, which is everyone. He calls people anonymously, asking how they feel about integration. He organizes meetings in diners. A dormant anger awakens.

Eventually Shatner addresses seemingly every white person in town one night, in a big speech in which he makes allusions to those who "hate America" - i.e. the liberals who enacted the integration laws. This powerful sequence depicts people-as-sheep, all too easily riveted by a shyster with enormous charisma, superb speaking ability and shady, unverifiable "facts." Shysters like that (and people like that) exist in every era, making Adam Cramer a timeless character.

Soon the townspeople are taunting black schoolchildren, threatening innocent black people driving across town, and the like. Ku Klux Klan robes and a burning cross make an appearance. "Nigger" and other racist language is plentiful in the film, and its utter casualness does its job in making it shocking and unsettling. It's simply a word like any other in these parts.

Though there is one white character (Frank Maxwell) who fights Shatner's rabble-rousing, he is driven much more by a desire to obey the law than by any moral sense. He's as racist as the rest, and it is in this way that The Intruder is most honest. The movie does imply by the end that Maxwell might be coming around, but that's as far as it goes. In one beautifully written and acted scene, in a hospital after Maxwell has been savagely beaten up, Maxwell's wife (Katherine Smith) explains just why and how she is able to support him and his strange choice to defend the black population, even though she "can't understand it." (The screenplay was adapted by Charles Beaumont from his own novel.)

Playing another big part in The Intruder's honesty is its atmosphere. The movie was filmed in real towns - three in all, because the crew kept getting kicked out when the locals discovered that the film's viewpoint was for integration and not against it. In any event, the locations simply reek of authenticity.

All the small roles and extras were played by real townspeople, and it's hard to imagine finding such great faces in Hollywood. Charles Barnes in particular is excellent as the main black character in the film, a schoolkid who ends up being the most threatened of all. Corman explains in an included featurette that Barnes was a local nonactor who was actually in his first year at the town's previously all-white school.

As for Shatner, even though his naturally overblown acting style is well-suited to this part, he is indeed awfully good. When not inflaming bigotry, his Adam Cramer is seducing the wife of a local and even messing around with a high-school girl. ("I don't think Daddy would approve of this kind of thing going on," says the girl as they make out in a car.) Shatner handles it all with a gleeful slickness.

The Intruder remains a fascinating, hard-hitting film, difficult to watch at times but in a good way. It gets under your skin, showing an ugly side of America which is important to remember not least because it hasn't entirely gone away.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment's new DVD appears to be a re-issue of a 2001 release of this title. The image, presented full-frame, is a tad rough in spots but perfectly acceptable, and sound quality is quite good and clear. The only extra is a brief featurette, "Remembering The Intruder," in which Corman and Shatner recall their work together. It's so interesting that one wishes it were longer.

To order The Intruder, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold