The Intruder (1962, Roger Corman)

The Intruder has third act problems of the deus ex machina nature, and they’re actually welcome. If the film figured out how to finish better, it’d be more challenging to talk about. It’s already an exceptionally unpleasant experience.

William Shatner gets top-billing as the title character. He’s a slick, charming, clean-cut Northern (well, Western—he’s originally from California) white supremacist who heads to a Southern town to stir up trouble thanks to a recent integration ruling.

Director Corman and writer Charles Beaumont (adapting his novel and co-starring as the pro-integration school principal) never humanize Shatner’s character. They initially make a joke about it—he helps a little girl off the bus—but then they immediately establish he’s an evil person in search of stupid evil people who need a leader.

He’s in luck; the town’s full of stupid evil people. So Shatner works out a deal to organize the white trash for Southern blue blood Robert Emhardt, who’d never, and do something about the impending integration.

Unfortunately for everyone, Shatner doesn’t realize how dangerous stupid makes evil people, even the respectable ones like Emhardt.

The film juxtaposes Shatner’s story with local newspaperman Frank Maxwell. Maxwell starts the film believing you follow the law even if it says to integrate. Seeing how Shatner affects his fellow townsfolk, Maxwell becomes an integrationist himself. Even though it might lose him wife Katherine Smith. They have a particularly painful scene together where Smith says she’ll stop being so racist because she has to do what her husband says. Intruder’s solution for racism is always patriarchy and some toxic masculinity for effect. But only for those who need it. Otherwise, just patriarchy.

When the film’s heading towards some kind of showdown between Shatner and Maxwell, it’s on solid ground. The juxtaposition works. But Shatner can’t leave well enough alone—he’s already done some heavy petting with Maxwell’s teenage daughter, Beverly Lunsford, if not more, but he also decides he needs to rape Jeanne Cooper. She’s married to traveling salesman Leo Gordon, and since Gordon’s machismo threatens Shatner, he needs to assault Cooper when Gordon’s a way to prove he’s a man.

It’s an exceptionally unpleasant scene in a film with nothing but unpleasant scenes.

But it puts Shatner and Gordon on a collision course, which changes the dynamics. It’s not about Shatner being a racist piece of shit and Maxwell realizing racist pieces of shit are bad; it’s about Gordon and Shatner’s sales styles. And, of course, Shatner assaulting Cooper. But more the sales styles.

There’s also the story of Black high school student Charles Barnes, who gets caught up in the hostilities. The film avoids putting a face on the white students or their parents (outside Lunsford). It’s too busy implying the racist white people aren’t the white school parents. They’re the barely employed white trash who have time to drop everything and make racist picket signs to threaten children.

The third act problems save the film from an unsuccessful scene where Maxwell appeals to the good whites because Corman and Beaumont know it’d play hollow. The resolution they do find, however, plays contrived. Even if there’s a lot of good acting in it.

Obviously, completing the performances is tricky because they’re primarily mundane villains. Terrifying ordinary white guy racists. Maybe they’ve got bad teeth, but nobody in the movie, save Shatner probably, has good teeth.

Gordon’s good, Cooper’s good, Maxwell and Lunsford are good. Lunsford gets a weak part, however. Though she does at least get to have a showdown with her mom’s racist dad, Walter Kurtz, who berates son-in-law Maxwell for not being racist enough.

It’s all distressingly realistic.

Shatner’s performance is exceptional. He’s got maybe one iffy scene—a rally—but only because you can’t believe anyone would fall for such loud stupidity. Or at least you didn’t used to be able to believe it. Reality hasn’t let The Intruder age. It just kept making it more and more true to life.

Corman’s direction’s good. He and cinematographer Taylor Byars do a lot with focus and contrast. There are some weird things—lack of high school establishing shots, for example—but they always seem like they’re probably budget-related.

Good music from Herman Stein.

The Intruder’s pretty good—with that incredible Shatner performance—but it’s got a lot of problems, so it’s almost better it’s not indispensable overall.


6 Comments

  1. Brian Schuck

    This is such an outlier in a sea of exploitation pictures made purely for entertainment.It’s something he wanted or needed to do at the time, but although it won some awards, it was also his first film that lost money. It’s also innovative for the time in portraying the lead racist as handsome, slick and articulate.

  2. Eric Binford

    Not perfect, but fascinating nevertheless. Shatner’s overly enthusiastic persona is put to good use here, and the story isn’t, unfortunately, as far-fetched as one wants it to be.

  3. Barry P. (@Barry_Cinematic)

    I found this to be a pretty solid adaptation of Beaumont’s book, but I realize The Intruder isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. You brought up some valid points about the more problematic elements, and I appreciate your take on this. Thanks for joining the Corman-verse Blogathon!

  4. Michael

    It’s disturbing that the film solves one social injustice with another. It’s possibly even worse that it implies racism is only a problem within a certain class of people rather than within all walks of life. But it is heartening that, in 1962, they were making the attempt and we’ve come far enough since then to at least be able to spot their missteps. Well written, article.

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