The Intruder

The Intruder

****1/2

Reviewed by: Chris

Have you ever met anyone who might not be what they seem?

People do sometimes pretend to be something they’re not. For all sorts of reasons. The con-man, the undercover policeman. Is deception per se wrong? More basically, I think it’s about whether you’re true to yourself as a member of the human race. Any persona who isn't will mislead you and others, intentionally or otherwise.

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Meet Adam Cramer (William Shatner). Well-spoken, with a mild and temperate manner. Qualities that may occupy a default ‘trust’ position. The local hotel is honoured. A clean cut, educated gentleman staying with them – a prize guest! Attractive, too. And did I mention his skin colour? It’s white. Not that that would influence you of course.

Things seem to change whenever Adam mentions his line of business. "Social reform," he says. An out-of-town do-gooder? Messin’ with what they know nothin' about?

Dominant social ideology can be good. We trust police. Priests. Those sorts of people. Custom, or social pressure. The Intruder is about racism. That it packs so much punch is aided by there being fewer than half a dozen professional actors. The rest are locals. (Are some of a racist persuasion themselves?) Had they known the film’s ending, it might not have been finished. The leading man reported genuine fear and terror on some locations.

The NY Times called this “a major credit to the entire American Film Industry.” It was released in 1961, a time when the Klu Klux Klan, violently opposed to desegregation, would intimidate and attack black people who travelled with white volunteers on ‘Freedom Buses’. No-one dares appear racist – then or now. It had become suddenly unfashionable (and illegal). But most whites in this Missouri hick town want things back to how they were. Peaceful like. (In real life, the government had to deploy 500 Federal Marshals to protect the Freedom Riders.)

In this setting (moved from the buses to school integration), our story sees how different levels of mob mentality are aroused. Watch for the clever linking of racism with abuse of gender dominance. Both stem from inner weakness, a lack of feeling comfortable with who one really is, a lack of knowing oneself. The Intruder demonstrates, by analogy, how personal insecurities intrude on people’s lives, contributing to crime and moral turpitude. Including, of course, crimes ‘blessed by the Lord’ – be sure to check out the roles of two different clergymen in this story.

The religious angle – in one case the abuse of a religious symbol - is also played out as the night-gowned Mrs Griffin reluctantly entertains her pushy neighbour. Hubby is away. They gaze – almost romantically - out of the window. At a burning (KKK) cross.

“I didn’t know you were a religious man?”

“You have to admit it’s dramatic!”

“So is a lynching,” she says.

“That’s old-fashioned,” he replies. Disingenuously saying he is there to "save" lives – not to take them.

Mrs Griffin retorts: “And I’m the Empress of China!” She is not so easily wooed by this wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Racism is abuse of power. This film crew had little power to abuse, shooting on a mere $80,000 (the director re-mortgaging his home to finance it). But it is powerful stuff. The photography is crisp in black and white, beautifully edited, and the film never for one second looks dated. There's superlative scripting, Shatner is riveting, and pitch-perfect grappling with moral issues makes this one of the best films of the period, as well as one of the best ever made on race relations.

The big downside is this. You may be put off by the names associated with it. Director, Roger Corman: in spite of many good works for people in the industry, he's mostly known for trashy horror (which enjoys a considerable cult following). Likewise, leading man William Shatner, none other than Captain Kirk of TV Star Trek. Don’t let any prejudice put you off, or you will indeed miss out. The film is in a different category – and class - to anything else either of these gentlemen have ever done.

For most civilised countries, things have moved on since the Spanish Inquisition, Hitler’s segregation of Jewish people, or the segregation of black people in South Africa/North America. But the film is a salient warning not simply to adopt more sophisticated methods. “Remember,” says the rabble-rouser after whipping the mob to a murderous fury, “no violence.” That, sadly, is perhaps not as old-fashioned as it should be.

Reviewed on: 19 May 2009
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A racist provocateur stirs up hatred and violence in a small town in the American South.
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Festivals:

EIFF 2009

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