The Stranger / Shame / I Hate Your Guts!
Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 25 April 2006
Source Cable TV
In his 2006 Oscar acceptance speech, George Clooney praised Hollywood’s track record on civil rights. They gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939, he gushed, when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theatres. But the fact was that over two decades after that first bold step, black Americans were still waiting for a definitive studio statement reflecting their lives, their struggles, the regular and mounting injustices they were facing. Three years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, Hollywood at last responded with The Defiant Ones, a tale of integration that managed to successfully avoid any hint of direct political commentary by having the two central characters spend the entire movie shackled in a swamp. Indeed, the boldest studio statement about civil rights from this era is undoubtedly To Kill A Mockingbird, a period piece with a white Southern lawyer for a hero, an epic of honest, liberal Christian values triumphant over mob injustice. It’s a good film from a great book, but what Clooney and his fellow apologists generally ignore is that Mockingbird wasn’t even released until 1962, just one year before the march on Washington and one year after Roger Corman’s masterpiece, The Intruder.
The two films share a fair amount of ground—both centre on white characters, viewing racial tension largely through white eyes. Both are harshly critical of small-town values and vigilante violence. Both feature young black men of unimpeachable moral character who narrowly avoid a lynching for an alleged rape. And both films hinge on a belief in the individual’s ability to effect change, to rewrite society in their own image. The difference is that in Mockingbird, that individual is Atticus Finch, the greatest liberal hero since Tom Joad and Jesus, proud protector of the weak, the innocent and the oppressed. The Intruder gives us Adam Cramer, the Anti-Finch: a bigot, a despot, a vicious ego-crazed racist bent on destruction.
Inspired by the Little Rock, Arkansas, school integration crisis of 1957, The Intruder delves deeper into the dark heart of organised small-town hate than any American film before or since. Scripted by Charles Beaumont from his novel, directed by Roger Corman and produced by him on a shoestring budget, the production was beset by angry mobs, the crew thrown out of two Missouri towns when the citizens got wind of the filmmakers’ real intentions—that they would be arguing for integration, not against it.
The story hinges on a familiar premise: a mysterious stranger arrives in a small town, and trouble follows with him. But Adam Cramer is no Shane, he’s no crusader for justice like Spencer Tracy’s Macreedy in Bad Day At Black Rock. He’s an envoy for a far-right political interest group up in Washington, sent to the small town of Caxton, Missouri to block the integration of ten black students into the local high school. Stirring up the townsfolk with impassioned speeches while simultaneously seducing their wives and underage daughters, Cramer foments racial unrest to the point where a church is bombed, a preacher killed and a student almost lynched in the high school playground.
William Shatner’s performance as Cramer is a revelation, complex and intuitive, alternating between oily-smooth and explosively charismatic. His infamous tendency to chew the scenery is kept in check until it’s time to let loose, to go bug crazy, whipping the crowd into a torment of misdirected fury. But Cramer is never allowed to become a simple psychopath; there’s genuine belief and determination, charm and even sex appeal, but also a sense of simmering fear, that he’ll lose his grip, that he’ll be found out, exposed as a fraud and a weakling who needs a mob behind him to feel like a man. In more practiced hands the character might have seemed cold, controlling, but Shatner is too impassioned and imperfect an actor. There’s never a sense that Cramer really knows what he’s doing, he’s just lighting fuses and waiting for the bang, a lack of self control that only makes the character more terrifying. There’s a moment near the opening when Cramer, finding himself alone in his hotel room, whips out a loaded gun and boyishly pretends to fire off a few shots; for a split second there’s the Shatner we recognise, it’s Captain Kirk or TJ Hooker running and ducking and blowing away the bad guys. Then Cramer catches his reflection, and fixes his face, and tries once more to look like an adult.
Centring his film around such a gruesome, despicable figure was a brave but ultimately costly move for Corman; the film tanked, and the director allegedly blamed his star. But there are other strong characters in the film. Frank Maxwell plays Tom McDaniel, the local newspaper editor, clearly intended as the central audience identification figure. But unlike Mcreedy or Finch, McDaniel isn’t an avowed liberal with a cross to bear. He’s uncertain whether he even believes in integration until the violence sparks; his family are open and unapologetic racists. And the price he pays for his involvement is high, a brutal beating leaves him hospitalised for the last third of the film.
The central black character is student Joey Greene, played with quiet if occasionally awkward dignity by amateur Charles Barnes. Clearly recognising the risk that Greene become a token figure like Brock Peters in Mockingbird, Corman and Beaumont spend time on the character, showing him at home with his family, or taking the long walk to school through the white part of town. In the final scene Joey, falsely accused of raping a white girl, walks out to face the mob baying for his blood. It’s a heart-stopping moment, a rare depiction of true bravery. Barnes never flinches, and Corman’s camera never looks away.
Corman and Beaumont cleverly avoid the anticipated happy ending: Cramer is defeated, but not by Joey or the upstanding Tom McDaniel, or the inherent decency of the mob. His reign of terror is halted by a jealous husband out for revenge—Cramer’s indecent proclivities are exposed, and the crowd walk away in disgust, their minds unchanged, their prejudices still intact. Joey escapes, this time, but the situation is left far from resolved.
In almost every aspect The Intruder feels ahead of its time, or rather it feels raw and contemporary when almost every other film of the period appears safe and outdated. The miniscule budget forces Corman to adopt a grainy, documentary aesthetic, highlighting the disparity between white affluence and black poverty, eschewing any of Hollywood’s old poor-but-contented clichés. The white extras seem genuinely threatening, in their thick-rimmed glasses and slacks, fists clenching proudly as they salute Shatner’s raving madman. And Beaumont doesn’t shy away from realism when it comes to language—the townsfolk pepper their sentences with ‘nigger’ and ‘jew,’ it’s just a part of speech, clearly as natural to these bit-part actors as to the characters they portray.
Almost half a century later, The Intruder still fails to find the audience it deserves. I happened to catch it on a cheapo late night cable channel, peppered with ads for pro-wrestling DVDs. And it’s a shame, because this is a rare and unflinching portrait of a topic Hollywood has still been unable to confront with any real conviction—the last attempt was Mississippi Burning more than a decade ago, a film which attempted to persuade audiences that white FBI agents were sympathetic to the cause of civil rights. And while Hollywood pats itself on the back for producing films like Mockingbird and In The Heat Of The Night, the truth is that The Intruder hit first, and hit hardest.