(1962) Directed by Roger Corman; Written by Charles Beaumont; Based on the novel by Charles Beaumont; Starring: William Shatner, Beverly Lunsford, Robert Emhardt, Leo Gordon, Charles Barnes and Jeanne Cooper; Available on DVD
“While those first Poe films in CinemaScope carried me into filmmaking on a larger scale, The Intruder was the first film I directed from a deep political and social conviction. It was by far, the biggest artistic and commercial risk of my career…” – Roger Corman (excerpt from How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome)
“One thing Adam Cramer’s done for us…He’s made us face ourselves.” – Tom McDaniel (Frank Maxwell)
When many of us think of Roger Corman, our initial image is of a prolific low-budget producer (and sometimes director) of drive-in movies. Some might refer to his Poe Cycle movies, or his role as a mentor for many famous actors and filmmakers. Few would think of him, however, as a socially conscious filmmaker – any messages in many of his films were incidental or subconscious. But what if the social message was the primary focus? The Intruder, adapted from Charles Beaumont’s* 1958 novel, brings themes of racial segregation, institutionalized bigotry and hatemongering front and center.
* Fun Fact #1: Watch for Beaumont in a small role as high school principal Mr. Paton.
To add a layer of credibility to the film’s setting, The Intruder* was shot mainly in the small town of Sikeston, Missouri.** Corman didn’t rely on his usual stock players for the faces in his movie. Only the leads, headlined by a young William Shatner (who had mostly done plays until that point) were brought in from L.A. The rest of the cast and most of the crew were hired from local talent. Due to the controversial themes, United Artists, American International, and Allied Artists passed on producing The Intruder. Instead, the film was mostly financed by Roger and his brother Gene and shot on a budget of $80,000. Despite garnering high praise from critics and winning a prize at the Venice Film Festival, Corman found difficulty securing distribution for the film. Due to the frequent use of a racial epithet, the MPAA initially refused to provide its seal of approval, and the original film distribution company, Pathé Labs, left the distribution business. The Intruder was eventually released by another company, but never managed to break even.
* Fun Fact #2: The film was re-released under the exploitive titles, I Hate Your Guts! and Shame.
** Not So Fun Fact #1: Because the shooting location was sufficiently distanced from the Deep South, Corman felt that he would avoid controversy during shooting. Due to the volatile nature of the film, however, Corman and crew were met with death threats from belligerent townspeople and animosity from law enforcement.
Adam Cramer (William Shatner) arrives in the sleepy southern town of Caxton (the state is never mentioned), taking up temporary residence at a boarding house (he says his occupation is “Social Worker”). His appearance is no coincidence, as the local high school is about to be integrated with 10 black students from the other side of town. Cramer represents a political group, the Patrick Henry Organization (in the book, it’s called SNAP, or the Society of National American Patriots) from Washington, D.C, which opposes recent de-segregation legislation. He forms an alliance with rich bigot Verne Shipman (Robert Emhardt) to add some influence to his words, and makes an inflammatory speech to a large group in front of the local courthouse. Cramer exposes the white residents’ disdain for the ruling, advocating an effort to block the new students from attending. As tempers flare, and the townspeople are moved to a hate-filled fervor, he soon discovers that the monster he created is about to careen out of control. Harsh words and protests give way to violence, as Adam gloats in the background.
* Not So Fun Fact #2: According to Corman, the events in The Intruder were inspired by a real-life incident, in which a northerner came to a southern town to stir up racial tension.
Only one prominent white Caxton resident, newspaperman Tom McDaniel, stands up to oppose Cramer and his inflammatory rhetoric. One scene underscores Caxton’s deep-seated prejudice in McDaniel’s discussion with his wife Ruth (Katherine Smith), after she considers pulling their daughter Ella (Beverly Lunsford) from the high school. We see that her prejudices are not founded in any specific reason – asked how she feels about integration, she answers, “I think it’s a terrible thing.” When pressed further, she can only reply, “Because it just isn’t right, that’s why.” Prejudice is the status quo (no thanks to her bigoted father who lives with them) in Caxton, passed down through generations and perpetuating ignorance and fear.
William Shatner has caught a lot of flak for over-the-top acting and stilted dialogue delivery, but based on The Intruder, perhaps his early career deserves a re-evaluation. He anchors the film with an engaging performance as the enigmatic, charismatic Adam Cramer. Cramer was, in Corman’s words, “a pied piper with a dark agenda hidden from view” (from Corman’s introduction to Beaumont’s novel). When he arrives in Caxton to stir up racial bigotry, he exploits what was already there, but finds a way to mobilize the masses to action. In his fiery speech on the courthouse steps, he relies on his version of “facts,” spewing a torrent of lies, fabrications, distortions and half-truths to construct a narrative envisioning a country besieged by African Americans. He creates an illusion that the way of life for the white townspeople is threatened, with fear the common denominator. He manipulates Tom’s impressionable teen daughter Ella, making her complicit in framing black high school student Joey Greene (Charles Barnes).* He also seduces his neighbor Sam Griffin’s wife Vi (Jeanne Cooper), preying on her loneliness.
* Fun Fact #3: Barnes was 37 at the time of filming, while Lunsford was 16.
Translating a book to a screenplay requires some necessary concessions, but Charles Beaumont (who adapted his own novel) does a tremendous job keeping the core themes and arguments intact. The novel provides more details about McDaniel and Cramer’s respective motivations and the cynicism that fuels Cramer’s actions. Beaumont also tears apart the arguments against de-segregation piece by piece in the book, something that’s not possible in an 82-minute film. Additionally, key secondary characters in the book such as Mr. Paton are relegated to the background. On the plus side, Joey Greene is given more screen time, relative to his appearance in the book.
Corman famously contended that The Intruder was his only film up to that point that lost money. It was a critical success (anchored by Shatner’s fine performance), but a commercial failure. It’s unfortunate that this important film’s spotty distribution and poor financial performance prevented it from reaching a wider audience. Far from a relic of a bygone, less-enlightened time, it’s all too relevant in today’s divided climate. It serves as a sober reminder that there’s always another Adam Cramer, waiting in the wings to prey on ignorance and fan the flames of racial discord. The Intruder demands to be re-discovered and embraced by a new generation, and would be an excellent launching point for discussion in high schools. It’s a tragic oversight the film has never received the home video treatment it deserved. One can only hope that it eventually receives a proper video restoration and treatment (from Criterion or similar). Until then, it’s worth seeking out this great film in any format you can find.
Sources: How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome; “Remembering the Intruder” 2007 DVD featurette; The Intruder by Charles Beaumont