Friday, December 15, 2017

A Closer Look at "The Intruder "

Every true Roger Corman fan knows the story of The Intruder: how in 1961, when the Civil Rights movement was just starting to hit its stride, Roger discovered Charles Beaumont’s gutsy 1959 novel and decided to adapt it for the screen. Written in 1958, it was a fictional account of a white rabble-rouser who turns up in a small Southern town to fan the smoldering flames of racial hatred. Hollywood showed some interest in filming Beaumont’s work, then decided it was too controversial for its era. When Corman and his brother Gene became involved, they thought they’d be making their movie for United Artists. Tony Randall was in negotiations to play the leading role, and the budget was projected to be $500,000.

Soon, however, it became apparent that the Corman brothers were on their own. Most of the production costs (in the neighborhood of $70,000) came out of their own pockets. For reasons of authenticity as well as cost control, the feature was shot entirely on location, primarily in rural Missouri, near the Arkansas border. William Shatner, a young Canadian stage actor still lightyears away from becoming Captain Kirk, was signed to play the charismatic demagogue, Adam Cramer. Getting other actors to commit to the project wasn’t easy. Author Beaumont, who adapted his own novel for the screen, stepped in without salary to play the courageous school teacher, and many parts (including that of the black high school student who sparks the film’s crisis) were taken by non-professionals living in the region.

By shooting this story in towns where it could have happened, Corman and crew were courting real danger. For three weeks they dodged sheriffs, eluded threats of violence, and sidestepped accusations that they were Communists. Some of the script’s most incendiary moments remained unfilmed. Still, reviews were mostly respectful. But the audience stayed away, and Corman—losing money on a picture for the first time in his career—returned to making horror flicks. Still, he has always remained  justifiably proud of his one big foray into socially conscious cinema.

Just recently I was sent by Christopher Beaumont, the late author’s son,a new edition of the source novel. It reminded me what an excellent writer Charles Beaumont was, before he succumbed to a cruel disease at age 38. His novel uses verbal mastery to paint a vivid and convincing picture of the dog days of summer in a sleepy Southern town: “Summer had a magic to it, a magic way of frying the nerve ends, boiling the blood, drying the brain. . . . It was the season of mischief, the season of slow movements and sudden explosions, the season of violence.” (Corman’s black-and-white filming doesn’t fully capture this sense of oppressive Southern heat, though 1967’s Oscar-winner  In the Heat of the Night comes close.) 

Beaumont also succeeds in peopling his town with a raft of complex characters. Most important, he makes us understand where Adam Cramer is coming from, and why he—an outsider and a Yankee—feels the need to stir up racial trouble in the Deep South. This, alas, is where The Intruder feels most prescient. It warns that a single ambitious man can use a culture-wars issue like forced school integration to bend a community to his will. Here’s Adam’s formula for success: “Play on their ignorance, underline and reflect their prejudices; make them afraid.”  This stealthy march toward fascism is, in Beaumont’s eyes, easily accomplished:  without concerned citizens and a free press to stop you in your tracks, you can “become a dictator before the people’s eyes without anyone seeing it happen.”

Big thanks to Chris Beaumont for supplying me with a handsome new edition of his father’s novel

A desperate Roger Corman attempt to drum up audiences for his film
The novel's original cover

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