Tuesday 18 June 2024

The Intruder
(Roger Corman, 1962)

Though not quite the overlooked masterpiece it is sometimes hailed as, this unique entry in Roger Corman’s filmography - a rare and impassioned excursion into the treacherous realm we would today call ‘non-genre’ - certainly still packs a punch, remaining as sickening, uncomfortable and difficult to shake off as a random kick to the kidneys.

One thing which must be understood straight away about ‘The Intruder’s status as a political / message movie, is that it is a diatribe. Anyone in search nuanced characterisations, multiple points of view, or a general recognition of the ever-shifting shades of grey which define the contours of our lives on earth, should probably look elsewhere.

Thankfully though, it is at least a diatribe with which I (and, I would suggest, all reasonable and right-thinking people across the globe) can wholeheartedly agree, and as an unflinching exposé of the manipulative tactics employed by self-serving demagogues seeking to squeeze personal power from the rotting fruit of pre-existing hatreds and social inequality, well… blindingly obvious though may be to say so, it remains as relevant to life in the western world circa 2024 as it was in 1962, if not more so.

Taking its cue to some extent from Orson Welles’ similarly button-pushing ‘The Stranger’ from 1946, ‘The Intruder’ takes us to the emblematic, petri dish-like environment of Caxton, Missouri, a small town into which a dangerous outside element has just been introduced - Adam Cramer, played by William Shatner, an agent provocateur apparently dispatched to the town from Washington DC on behalf of something called the “Patrick Henry Society” (a fairly obvious analogue for the far right John Birch Society).

Stepping off a Greyhound and checking into the town’s only hotel, Cramer, armed with a distinctive white suit and oversized personal confidence, immediately begins canvassing the local citizenry vis-à-vis their views on the Kennedy administration’s then-recent anti-segregation laws, which are due to result in a small number of black pupils soon beginning to attend the town’s previously all-white high school for the first time. Suffice to say, the down home folks’ responses to this topic prove a lot encouraging to Caxton’s purposes than they do to those of us implicitly liberal viewers.

In fact, Corman’s main jumping off point from the template laid down by ‘The Stranger’, and the element which ultimately makes ‘The Intruder’ so much more disturbing, is that, whereas Welles’ film began by evoking a familiar ‘white picket fence’ ideal of the benign American small town into which a corrupting fascist element is introduced, L.A. native Corman’s conception of down home Americana is already pretty close to hell on earth, even before the demonic influence of Shatner’s transient, shit-stirring carpet-bagger is added to the mix.

Shooting in the southeast Missouri towns of Charleston and East Prairie, it’s safe to assume that Corman and his brother Gene (credited as executive producer) very much hedged their bets when it came to letting the townsfolk know exactly what kind of film they were making here. Details of the script were kept a secret, but this reticence apparently didn’t prevent the filmmakers from being thrown out of the latter town by the sheriff on account of being “communists”, whilst Shatner has reported that the production also regularly needed to contend with threats of violence, sabotaged equipment and the like.

Whilst the film’s primary actors were cast in L.A., locals in Missouri were employed on an ad-hoc basis to fill out the rest of the supporting and non-speaking roles, and perhaps the single most disturbing aspect of ‘The Intruder’ when viewed today is that, after Shatner’s character has gotten warmed up and started delivering a series of anti-integration tirades, dropping the N-bomb incessantly as he demeans and demonises the town’s (thus far invisible) black population, the (presumably genuine, and minimally briefed) locals simply listen to him and nod in quiet, uncontested agreement, as if he were talking about repairing potholes, or repainting the local fire station or something.

None of the non-actors and white passers by bearing witness to his hate-filled oratory seem to register even the slightest surprise or unease, whether in the context of a hotel lobby, main street diner, or eventually, at a mass rally on the steps of the town hall. It’s pretty chilling stuff.

Retrospectively adding to this profound sense of discomfort of course is the casting of Shatner, seen here in one of his first significant screen role after a few years spent cutting his teeth in TV and the theatre. Of course, no one in 1962 could have known the path his career would take, but needless to say, the sight of the future Captain Kirk practically frothing at the mouth preaching racial hatred has the potential to prove pretty alarming to multiple generations of Americans, and this cognitive dissonance is only enhanced by the fact that Shatner’s performance here is absolutely superb.

In terms of conventional acting chops in fact, I think this is the best work I’ve ever seen from him by a country mile. Having apparently not yet developed the hammy, staccato diction which would make him such a beloved figure of fun in years to come, Shatner instead plays it totally straight, capturing that very particular brand of weaselly, ingratiating, blank-eyed intensity unique to psychopathic politicos and conmen to an extent which is little short of terrifying.

To 21st century eyes though, the most obvious failure of ‘The Intruder’ is the chronic absence of actual black characters, and the reluctance to assign much of a voice even to those who do appear on screen.

Early in the film, Cramer views the poverty of “N***ertown” through the glass of a taxi window - just as the filmmakers, capturing this more-or-less documentary footage, presumably also did - and effectively, that’s all we in the audience get to see of it for quite a long time thereafter. Eventually, we get a few scenes of a black family group, some more vérité footage of some suitably apprehensive, disheartened looking dudes silently hanging out on their stoops, and then - in the film’s primary image of Civil Rights era emancipation - the sight of a column of primly attired new black pupils, led by the handsome Joey Greene (Charles Barnes), making their way to high school for the first time, as the white populace radiates hatred in their general direction.

It’s a great sequence actually, orchestrated and edited by Corman with Eisensteinian immediacy, but, of all the black school pupils, Joey is the only one allotted much screen time or a role in the narrative - or even a name and personality for that matter. And, even he fits neatly into the reassuringly well spoken, well turned out mould established on screen in the preceding years by Sidney Poiter and Harry Belafonte - a decidedly conventional, unthreatening presence.

Very much the weakest aspect of the film, this limited engagement with actual black life can’t help but nail ‘The Intruder’ squarely as the work of the kind of well-intentioned white liberals who lack the experience or insight to actually conceive of black people as human beings, complete with flaws, complexities and ranges of interests and opinions which extend beyond a set of benign, outdated stereotypes. (Exactly the kind of attitude punctured so brilliantly in a SF/horror context by Jordan Peele in ‘Get Out’ a few years back, funnily enough.)

About the only moment in which the filmmakers even consider the possibility that young black people might want to do something other than be ‘integrated’ into the institutions of a cowardly and gullible white society inhabited by pinch-faced creeps who hate their guts, is the sole scene featuring by far ‘The Intruder’s best black character - Joey’s pre-teen younger brother (who sadly remains uncredited, insofar as I can tell).

A resplendent hep-cat in waiting, this kid is introduced licking on an ice lolly as he listens to blaring be-bop on the radio (“whatchu talkin’ about ‘junk’, that’s MUSIC, man”), and he clearly gets an almighty kick out of mocking his square older brother; “well it’s too bad I ain’t old enough to go to school, I wouldn’t be scared, that’s all … man, you know what you oughta do? I’ll tell you what you oughta do, get yourself a gun, play it cool see, and the first grey stud looks at ya sideways, BLAMBLAMBLAMBLAMBLAM…”

A bit more time spent with this kid brother, or some similarly outspoken black adults, might have allowed the filmmakers to wrangle a hell of a lot more verisimilitude into ‘The Intruder’, but… what can you say - at the end of the day, they meant well.

I mean, it would certainly have been a lot easier, and a lot more profitable, for Roger, Gene and scriptwriter Charles Beaumont to chill out by the pool back in Hollywood and knock out a couple of radioactive monster flicks, so we at least owe them props for standing up and being counted, putting their careers, their money, and even their personal safety on the line to make a film like this one, live on the scene in the south, whilst the battles of the Civil Rights era were still raging.

A far more interesting element of Beaumont’s script meanwhile is the nature of Cramer’s main antagonist, Sam Griffin, played to perfection by Corman regular (and occasional script writer) Leo Gordon. Griffin and his demoralised wife Vi (Jeanne Cooper) are, ultimately, the only characters in the movie who become more than cyphers, developing an intriguing and contradictory mess of personality traits as we get to know them better, and the material dealing with Cramer’s interactions with them yields many of the film’s strongest dramatic moments.

Staying at the same rundown hotel as Cramer, Griffin is initially introduced as a loud-mouthed, drunken braggart, apparently employed as some kind of showman / barker charged with luring customers into a shop in a neighbouring town. Much to his chagrin, Cramer initially reads Griffin as a clown, and, as a result, hones in on the clearly-sick-of-it-all Vi with an especially predatory look in his eye.

After Cramer ‘seduces’ Vi in a horribly uncomfortable scene which modern audiences are liable to read less ambiguously as a ‘rape’, prompting her to flee the rest of the film in shame, her husband’s character turns on a dime, dropping the ‘comedy drunkard’ shtick and squaring his shoulders as if he’s suddenly realised he has seriously nasty little fucker to take care of here.

Evidently the immature Cramer’s superior in terms of guts and life experience, Griffin initially disarms and humiliates him in a sweaty hotel room confrontation that pushes the film about as close as it gets to the realm of film noir, whilst, back on the rails of the central political narrative, the decision to put Gordon up against Shatner during the story’s final act proves absolutely inspired.

More-so than a conventional liberal saviour (such as the film’s mild-mannered school principal), Griffin’s background as a store front barker and confidence man means that he instantly recognises the kind of two-bit crap Cramer is peddling, and knows how to deal with it too - publically tearing him down, exposing his lies and allowing the ephemeral power he holds over the suckers to drain away like filth down a storm drain, leaving Cramer sitting alone and forlorn on the high school swing-set from which, just a few short minutes earlier, he was orchestrating an out of control lynch mob baying for blood.

Viewed at this particular point in history, it’s nigh on impossible to get through this closing scene without fervently wishing that a similar scenario could play itself out on a nationwide scale in the USA today… but unfortunately, life is never quite that simple, is it? Just as it’s never as simple as the strawman-baiting and scapegoating of the ‘other’ peddled by Cramer and his ilk.

And just as, likewise, the true darkness of Corman’s film lays not in the spectre of Cramer himself, but in the spectacularly bleak fact that, when the would be lynchmobbers shamefacedly shamble away from their erstwhile leader, they’ve still learned nothing from the experience. They may have given this week’s demagogue the heave-ho, and they may be temporarily willing to observe the law and allow black people to remain alive and attend their schools… but there is no suggestion here at all here that the townsfolk are any less dyed-in-the-wool racists than they were at the start of the film.

The good looks and clear diction of Joey Greene have clearly not won over these representatives of Ugly America, and the town’s black population remains silent, cowed and fearful. After Cramer slinks off to nurse his psychic wounds like a defeated alley cat, how long will it be before the next mean-spirited agitator shows up, or until the next black boy gets accused of looking at a white girl the wrong way, as the fuse on that same old powder keg starts tediously fizzing away yet again?

Enjoy yr ‘happy ending’ whilst you can folks, the film seems to say, because in the long run, this shit is going nowhere, irrespective of who’s holding the mop and bucket at any given time.

AND SO, let’s pencil in a parallel discussion of exactly why this ended up being the only film Roger Corman made during the ‘50s and ‘60s which failed to turn a profit shall we? How about, ooh, let’s say, 4th July in a couple of week? See you there!

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