Intruder in the Dust
Monday, January 19 2009, 4:00 am ET
Reprinted by permission of Donald Bogle from his film reference work, Blacks in American Films & Television: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Simon & Schuster)
Based on William Faulkner's novel and actually filmed in Oxford, Mississippi (using residents of the town in crowd scenes and in some minor roles), this movie has a non-studio, realistic look and tone (similiar to and no doubt influenced by the Italian neo-realists of this post-War period). And the acting is without gloss or glamor; it's a direct and immediate, rather naturalistic (although with the right dramatic flourishes) style new to American studio films.
But the story itself is what still engrosses and affects viewers. A black man, Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez), having been accused of killing a white southern neighbor, is imprisoned. The whites of the town are soon ready to lynch him, not so much, we soon learn, because they believe he's committed the crime but because he is a black man who has refused to play the part of the town nigger. Lucas knows who he is, has faith and confidence in his own worth, bows to no man, and carries himself with the greatest of dignity, so much so that he is indeed superior. In fact, he is so strong that he doesn't believe he has to prove anything to anybody, not even his innocence. He turns, however, to a young white boy, Chick. Sometime earlier Lucas had rescued Chick from drowning. Afterwards he had taken the child home with him so that the boy's clothes might dry. When Chick had then offered the black man money, Lucas had promptly rejected it. His had been an act of hospitality - and fundamental humanity - which cannot be paid for. But because of the South's rigid racial/social codes, Chick doesn't want to "owe" a black man for anything, and his later ambivalence - his hostility and his fascination with Lucas - is the same of that of many of the white townspeople, who feel, "We got to make him a nigger first. He's got to admit he's a nigger. Then maybe we will accept him as he seems to intend to be accepted." Thus begrudingly feeling he still must somehow repay the nigger for the debt, Chick sets out to find the real murderer.
Intruder in the Dust is a complex film, presented often as a murder mystery. And it succeeds on many levels,as a piece of entertainment and as an artistic statement. "If this movie had been produced in Europe," Pauline Kael wrote, "it would probably be widely acclaimed among American students of the film as a subtle, sensitive, neo-realist work."
Writing of the problem pictures in his essay "The Shadow and the Act," Ralph Ellison said that "the temptation toward self-congratulation which comes from seeing these films and sharing in their emotional release is apt to blind us to the true nature of what is unfolding - or failing to unfold - before our eyes. As an antidote to the sentimentality of these films, I suggest that they be seen in predominantly Negro audiences. For here, when the action goes phony, one will hear derisive laughter, not sobs...Intruder in the Dust is the only film that could be shown in Harlem without arousing unintended laughter. For it is the only one of the four [major black films released in 1949] in which Negroes can make complete identification with their screen image. Interestingly, the factors that make this identification possible lie in its depiction not of racial but of human quality."
Intruder in the Dust is not without flaws. The self-congratulatory tone Ellison speaks of its most apparent (as is the one "false note" of the film Pauline Kael has spoken of) at the conclusion when Chick's uncle, a white lawyer, tells the boy, "It will be all right as long as some of us are willing to fight - even one of us," adding, "Lucas wasn't in trouble - we were." That lame line's a bit hard to take.
Finally, though, one leaves Intruder in the Dust having seen something else quite startling, and new to American movies: it presents us with Hollywood's first black separatist movie hero. As Juano Hernandez plays Lucas, he is a truly towering figure: independent, proud, testy, outspoken, resilient, often impossible, even downright insufferable. It is an impressive performance, one of the strongest in the history of blacks in American films. Hernandez won two European awards for his work. But in the United States, his performance, while appreciated by many critics, generally went unnoticed and was forgotten soon afterward. The same was true of this vastly underrated film.
Producer/Director: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: Ben Maddow, William Faulkner (novel)
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Film Editing: Robert Kern
Art Direction: Randall Duell, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: David Brian (John Gavin Stevens), Claude Jarman Jr. (Chick Mallison), Juano Hernandez (Lucas Beauchamp), Porter Hall (Nub Gowrie), Elizabeth Patterson (Eunice Habersham), Charles Kemper (Crawford Gowrie).