" I can safely say at this point that we are lost. "
— Heather Donahue, The Blair Witch Project

MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Who could have imagined that Roger Corman once made a serious movie? I’ve just seen it and it’s titled The Intruder. And who could have imagined that Corman once made a film that would lose money... yup, The Intruder again. This is the most serious, politically charged and dramatic film I’ve ever seen with the Corman name attached. There must be a message here, because popular wisdom has it that Corman never lost money on a film again. I think it has something to do with no one ever going broke underestimating the taste of the American public.

The very young William Shatner stars as Adam Cramer, a right-wing crypto-fascist representing the “Patrick Henry Society ” ( a thinly veiled reference to the John Birch Society?) who arrives in the small southern town of Caxton in 1960. His mission is to fire up the white populace and get them to oppose the court ordered desegregation of the local high school.

You know something is up when Cramer steps off a bus, enters The Only Hotel In Town and, right off the bat, asks the landlady what she thinks about the “nigger problem”... uh oh, this is not going to be a regular Roger Corman movie. He tells her he’s come to town as a “social worker” to help them with their “problem.” This is an inversion of the “outside agitator” theme where instead of a union organizer or civil rights worker, it’s an outsider come to undo an advance in civil rights. In 1960 that idea might have seemed an intriguing if contrarian notion, but is perhaps not as strange today.

Shatner reminds us that the devil really is a gentleman
Shatner reminds us that the devil really is a gentleman

Shatner performs wonderfully as the political con man. His smooth talking and energetically charming manner reminds us that the devil really is a gentleman. He a lot like Harold Hill in The Music Man, the big city sharp who’s come to the little town to sell the locals a bill of goods. But instead of musical instruments, Cramer’s is selling a revolution (albeit one in retrograde). But according to IMDb, Corman was not happy with Shatner’s performance and blamed him in part for the films failure at the box office. This baffles me as Shatner has a menacing zeal that’s hard to argue with. Maybe that’s the problem... he was too convincing.

Shatner appears here before he appeared on The Twilight Zone in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1962), and certainly before his name and Kirk’s became household words. Indeed this film has the look and feel of a Twilight Zone episode and maybe that is because it was adapted from a novel by Charles Beaumont who was also a writer for The Twilight Zone. Beaumont also appears in The Intruder as the principal of Claxton’s high school.

Corman also did a great job of direction and even the trademark exploitive sex scenes have relevance to the plot. He gives an evenhanded treatment of the people in Claxton. Both the black and white communities are made up of regular folks. For instance instead of depicting the whites as inbred no-neck toothless sociopaths (a popular Southern stereotype amongst the Yankee intelligentsia... see for example, Deliverance ) Corman shows us people who are at least honest in their racism and so respectful of the law that they are going along with the court ordered desegregation of their high school. They may not like it, but they are going to do it anyway. This is probably because Corman used as many of the locals (Charleston, MO) as he could. In fact, the only stereotypical Southern louts are clearly actors brought in to head up the mob scenes. Notable too are the portrayals of the whites who stand up to the mob... early versions of Jimmy Carter Southerners. Still this is an exploitive film but instead of flashing a bit of skin, the “n” word is flashed about for shock effect. But you will note that the “good” whites don’t use it.

The Intruder was ahead of its time. When the rest of Hollywood was making films like Lilies of the Fields, To Kill a Mockingbird and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Corman was making a film that would have been more at home 10 or 15 years later. Its then-shocking honesty was pretty forward thinking and anticipates the actual white backlash to civil rights. For instance, there is the scene of the bombing of the black church in The Intruder. This is an eerie foreshadowing of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in September 1963. In the film, Cramer chastises the locals for the bombing because it will hurt their cause, which the Birmingham bombing certainly did to the Klan three years later.

There is also a sub-theme of Cramer losing control of the mob. He has come to town to exploit the whites’ frustration for some unknown end, possibly just for power itself. And as one character explains to him, he never had control of them to begin with. So although the film is a cautionary tale about a white racist backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, it’s also a broader warning about the pitfalls of demagoguery. I suspect that the depth of this story line is a direct product of its origin as Beaumont’s novel.

This film is well worth watching not only as a curious meeting of Shatner and Corman early in their careers, but because it accurately depicts the charged atmosphere of the 1960’s before Selma, The Civil Rights Act, and eventually, Watts. You may have forgotten, or may not even know how far we’ve come in 40 years, so it’s good to have stuff like this around as a reminder.

DVD Extras

The Intruder comes with minimal extras, but what you get is critical... interviews with Corman and Shatner (Remembering The Intruder). I think that there’s enough material surrounding this film to support a whole documentary. For instance there’s the story about the crew being run out of town when the locals found out that the film was in favor of integration. It would be interesting to hear the folks from Charleston tell their side of the story.

Picture and Sound

Both are adequate, but not pristine. This is a film that warrants a digitally repaired version. I wonder if this is the same film issued by the British Film Institute. Also, what cuts, if any, were made in this version?

How to Use this DVD

Sit back and enjoy Shatner’s energetically evil character. And be sure to watch “Remembering The Intruder” in the bonus feature.