Disclaimer: I am trying very hard not to put spoilers in here… you should ALL see this film.
The most important exchange of dialogue in The Intruder comes in the first five minutes when newly arrived Adam Cramer (William Shatner) explains why he's come to the small town of Caxton Missouri.
Old Lady Innkeeper: I suppose you're a salesman?
Cramer: You could say I'm a social worker. I've come to do what I can for the town.
Old lady innkeeper: (Quizzical look on her face)
Cramer: The integration problem.
Old Lady Innkeeper: Oh that, but that's all over. I mean they've got ten niggers enrolled already in the school. And they're starting Monday.
Cramer: Yes I know. And, do you think it's right?
Old Lady Innkeeper: No, I sure don't. Neither does nobody. But, it's the law.
Cramer: Whose law?
Charles Beaumont, author of the novel that Corman adapted into a screenplay, had a long career in television by the time Roger Corman approached him about creating a film version of The Intruder. Therefore, almost by mistake, this film has the best script of any film produced by Roger Corman. Ironically, it was Corman's only flop. From problems on location (it was filmed in Missouri ), to threats from locals and local law enforcement, to problems with distributors, none of which who would release it. Corman knew the subject matter would be explosive, and together with his brother, mortgaged their houses to finance the project. Released three times, as The Intruder, later as I Hate Your Guts, and finally as Shame, the film never recouped the cost of production. Corman would have to make up for his losses with additional cheapy monster B-pictures.
It's a damn shame too because The Intruder is, perhaps, the best civil rights film ever made.
Shatner puts in what is perhaps the best performance of his career as Adam Cramer, a northern white supremacist agitator and representative of The Patrick Henry Society sent to Caxton to spur the locals into a riot. Opposite him is Tom McDaniel (Frank Maxwell) the local newspaper editor who is also anti integration and refers to the black students as "invaders".
Cramer arrives just before the start of school and Cramer himself immediately to local big-wig Verne Shipman who bankrolls his stay in town. Shipman also owns the local paper so even against the protestations of Tom McDaniel, Cramer's message gets out.
Adam succeeds easily in whipping the townspeople into a racist frenzy and portraying himself as the moral savior of the white race. But Cramer is young, and deluded, and unable to see his own character flaws.
He seduces Ella the very young daughter of Tom McDaniel, and later Vi (Jeannie Cooper), the wife of Sam Griffin (Leo Gordon), another resident of the inn where Cramer lives.
Actually, ALL of the characters in this film are anti-integration, even the blacks, a fact that renders every motive of every supporting character, and every scene in the film a shade of gray. There's a scene where Joey Green (Charles Barnes) is leaving for school. His grandfather barks, "You negroes gonna cause some of us niggers to get killed." The old man knows that integration can only end in violence, and it is the old that remember the bad old days so vividly.
The kids walk to school on the first day through a gauntlet of sign waving, screaming thugs and they are scared to death. Corman shoots this scene beautifully too, cutting to the beady eyes of Adam Cramer, then to his monumental speech on the steps of the town hall.
Cramer: Now you all know there was peace and quiet in the south until the NAACP started stirring up trouble. But what you don't know is that this so called advancement of colored people is now, and has always been, nothing but a communist front headed by a jew who hates America and who doesn't make any bones about it either… The quickest way to destroy a country is to mongrelize it, and they put all their money into this one thing, desegregation.
When asked by Tom McDaniel (from the crowd) why he's come to "fight alongside" the townspeople of Caxton, Cramer answers.
Why? Because I love my country, and I'll give my life to keep it free, and white, and American!
Following this rally the frenzied townspeople, nearly lynch a black family unfortunate enough to drive through the center of town. Tim McDaniel intervenes and manages to diffuse the situation.
So much race hatred exists just beneath the surface of every character that once unleashed he cannot hope to control it. As Sam Griffin so aptly observes, "You think you control the mob, but you're wrong. They control you."
McDaniel is the most complex character in the film. Though he is anti-integration, and publishes editorials to that effect, he respects the rule of law. In fact, most of the town is the same way and it is not until he sees the beast that Cramer unleashes does he declare his support for integration.
McDaniel is not a hero, just another shade of gray, with a wife that is anti-integration for no other reason than "it's just not right", a father in law who is an avowed racist and describes the new law as "a black flood" and a daughter who is too easily used as a pawn in Cramer's last ditch effort to achieve his ends.
The Klan arrives and sets alight a cross on the lawn of the local black church.
That night a local black minister is murdered when the church is dynamited and Tom is forced to take sides, and he sides with the blacks. The most powerful scene in the film is of him walking with the black students on their way to school under the withering gaze of the local townspeople. His support doesn't come cheap. He's set upon and savagely beaten by his neighbors.
Adam may be charming, and have a good sales rap, something Sam recognizes immediately, he doesn't have the breadth of world experience to understand the ferocity of the monster he's unleashed. Worse, he doesn't understand the repercussions of making Sam an enemy which will come back to bite him squarely on his lily-white ass at the end of the film.
Unlike say, Mississippi Burning which portrayed similar events through the eyes of two federal investigators, The Intruder lets the townspeople be themselves, and in that there is a sort of weird innocence. They are pawns to the greater whims of Washington and the Supreme Court and must adapt to cultural dictates from an almost foreign entity. Just the sort of environment where people like Adam Cramer thrive. They come with an air of Professor Harold Hill, playing on the irrational fears of young white women raped by uncontrolled black men, and "niggers taking over the world" until the town square stinks of the Klan and inevitably sinks into violence.
The mob rules now, and Cramer tries one last ditch ploy to win back control. He asks Ella to cry out that Joey Green raped her in the school storeroom. A charge that, although completely unbelievable to any of the cast, will lead to the lynching of Joey Green.
Shot in stark black and white, with several excellent long shots, The Intruder is a landmark film of the civil rights era in that it perfectly captures the tension, language, and milieu of the early1960's south in all its terrible glory.
The DVD contains an excellent interview between Shatner and Corman (almost like a commentary track, but far too short), a Civil Rights timeline, and some trailers. The print is very, very good for about 80% or so of the film, the remaining 20% is scratched and pitted. But, hey, it's old, and it's never so bad that detracts from the experience.
This film should have catapulted Roger Corman into the highest echelons of social film-making — t here isn't a pretty face to be had here, there isn't a line of dialogue that isn't stinging in authenticity, there isn't a moment that doesn't creak and groan under the stress of the ideas in the script. Corman pulls absolutely no punches with language, or mis-en-scene either the slums of "Niggertown" are actual Missouri slums where segregated blacks eked out their lives, the main streets are main streets, the restaurants are real restaurants, the people are real southerners and real opponents of civil rights.
In 1961 America was not ready for The Intruder and in 2006 America may not yet be ready for The Intruder.
We may never be.
In closing –
Adam Cramer: Sir, I represent the Patrick Henry Society and what we'd like to know is how you stand on integration. Are you for integration, or against it?
Verne Shipman: Well that's a stupid question young man, I'm a southerner.