This movie surprised me. As I watched the opening scenes in a small town, I kept thinking of how they reminded me of the small towns near where I grew up. Sure enough, “The Intruder” was filmed in southern Missouri, in the small towns of East Prairie and Sikeston. That’s further east than where I lived, but pretty much the same longitude; many of the racist attitudes in the film were still in southern Missouri in the 1970s. When I was a kid, I recall sitting in the back seat of the family car as we drove home on a highway heading north, from Arkansas probably, and seeing a sign just south of Springfield proclaiming “Welcome to Klan Country.”
There are 2 intruders in this film. The white residents of the fictitious Claxton, Missouri think segregation is the unwelcome intruder; the human intruder is Adam Cramer, a young man in a white suit who rides into town on a bus during the hottest part of the year. He’s here, he says, because of the “integration problem.” It seems the town has been ordered by the law to allow segregation of the high school. The whites in town aren’t happy but they’re complacent, saying it’s the law and there is nothing to be done. Adam doesn’t like that. He starts to make “phone surveys” and talks to the powerful people in town, evangelizing hate and encouraging unrest.
Adam seems to lie about who he is. When he meets his neighbors in the hotel he stays at, a boisterous couple named Sam and Vi, he tells them he is from L.A. Later, he tells others he’s from the east coast and a representative of the Patrick Henry Society. He’s a sleazy opportunist, flirting with every woman he meets: The little 6-year-old he helps off the bus, the elderly hotel owner, the teenage daughter of the town’s newspaper man… and Vi.
He also seems to lie about what he wants. He yells about the superiority of whites with a firm conviction, but you never see him say or do anything racist unless he’s trying to convince a group of locals to do his bidding. One is never sure of his motivations. Is he a virulent racist or a psychopath taking advantage of a tense situation?
His encouragement of racism leads to students like Joey Greene being harassed when they join the white students at high school, as well as a Klan parade on the main street and a cross burnt on the lawn of the black townspeople’s church. Adam will chauffeur the Klan to the parade, but he doesn’t wear the robes, doesn’t even participate in it.
That night, flush with excitement from a good old fashioned cross burnin’, Adam leaves the citizens to wreak racist havoc while he makes his move on both Vi and the teenage Ella. Vi is played by an unrecognizable Jeanne Cooper, famous both for her many plastic surgeries and her long stint as Katherine Chancellor on “The Young and the Restless”. Her husband Sam, played by the immediately recognizable Leo Gordon, is a big boisterous salesman who likes Adam, thinks he’s a nice guy. Vi was on to Adam, knew he was in town to instigate and stir up trouble, but sleeps with him anyway.
Vi runs off in shame and Sam confronts Adam, knowing immediately that Adam was to blame for Vi’s disappearance. We also learn Sam has been on to Adam the whole time, too. One salesman can recognize another, he says, but he also knows Adam’s instigation is out of control. That night, some white townspeople blew up the church and killed the black preacher. That wasn’t Adam’s idea, and Sam knows it. He knows Adam is losing control of what he started. With sadistic glee, Sam tells Adam he’s going to stick around for a few days and find out what happens to Adam. Sam is, from that moment on, the audience surrogate, his presence always lurking even when he’s nowhere near the scene we’re watching.
Meanwhile, Ella’s father Tom (Frank Maxwell) realizes that he is on the side of integration, that he’s not quite the racist he thought he was. He helps Joey and the other black students walk safely to the high school, but gets the shit beat out of him (and loses an eye) for his trouble. Adam, in an attempt to gain control of the town mob that has gotten violent and unruly without his guidance, gets the bright idea to scare an already frightened Ella into lying that Joey tried to rape her.
Again, Adam doesn’t seem to actively seek death and violence, but he doesn’t care when it happens, either. If he has to encourage a lynching — because that’s surely what accusations against Joey would lead up to — it’s neither a good or bad thing in Adam’s mind. It just doesn’t matter to him because the attention he gets and the power he wields is his only concern. And Adam does have a significant power over people, a power that is part persuasion, part charm, and part seduction. Watch as he unbuttons his jacket on the courthouse steps at his first big speech: He’s stripping for the audience, and he loves it.
On the 40th anniversary special edition DVD of the film, Corman relates how no one at a major studio would touch this picture, so he and his brother mortgaged their homes and put up their own money. Corman in the interview says the film lost money but not that much and acted like it wasn’t that big of a deal; however, plenty of places online indicate that Corman was very upset that the film wasn’t a success, even claiming that Corman blamed Shatner for the film’s poor reception. If he blamed Shatner he has since forgiven him, as the two got along very well for the interview on this anniversary DVD.
When researching this, I looked up the Los Alamos International Film Festival, where “The Intruder” allegedly won Best Picture and Best Actor. I thought if Shatner was the recipient of the Best Actor award — and he might not have been, which is why I was checking — then it wouldn’t make sense for Corman to blame Shatner’s performance. But then I discovered there were no hits online for “Los Alamos International Film Festival”. I don’t think there is a Los Alamos International Film Festival. I can’t figure out what festival this movie won Best Picture at… if any.
The other quotes on the back of the DVD are impossible to verify on the Internet, as well, but Shatner himself reported that the best reviews he got in his career until Star Trek changed everything were from “The Intruder.” And indeed, Shatner’s performance is a fine one. He’s over the top but only when Adam Cramer would be over the top. He brings out the skeeve in droves for this film, and if there’s anything I’ve learned during the Shatnerthon is that William Shatner can really bring the skeeve to the party. It’s his superpower, and you gotta love him for it.
Also notable are some of the locals who do the acting. Joey is played by Charles Barnes, a particularly good actor who I believe was a young local man and not a professional. The IMDb says Barnes had a role, credited as “Charles Mercer Barnes”, in a film in 1951. I think that’s a different Charles Barnes, as Charles Mercer Barnes was playing a football player in the 1949 Fred MacMurray film “Father was a Fullback”, and there is no way the man who played Joey in 1962 could have also been playing an adult football player in 1949. He’s just too young. I wish someone could tell us who Charles Barnes was and what happened to him, because he is a big part of the reason “The Intruder” is such a fine film.
“The Intruder” very sadly doesn’t seem dated nearly 50 years after it was made. The paranoid lies Adam spews about Jewish conspiracies and the horrors of black politicians (“just like they have in Chicago!”) sound all too familiar. And when lies are exposed, people don’t bother to get angry; they simply go home and forget about it. There are no consequences, just apathy.
UPDATE: In an unrelated search, I discovered this great interview about Charles Beaumont, the author of the book “The Intruder” was based on. Beaumont is in the picture in a small role, and the interviewee — Richard Matheson — was asked to be in it as well. He turned it down because he just didn’t feel like going to Missouri. Pfft.