It is pretty hard to imagine a Hollywood Producer sitting in a meeting in 1962 and saying “I want a daring and powerful film about racism in the civil rights era…get Roger Corman and Bill Shatner on the phone pronto!”. Yet the B-Movie king and television’s most beloved overactor did indeed make such a movie, and The Intruder still packs a punch today. .
The story opens with an angelic-looking charmer (Shatner) named Adam Cramer arriving at a small Southern town for the purpose of “social work”. He is boyish and innocent-seeming at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that he is a member of a John Birch-type society and intends to stir up racial animosity concurrent with the arrival of school integration. He preys on weakness in all its forms and foments hatred and violence which spins out of control. Disgusted by Cramer, a fence-sitting newspaper editor (Frank Maxwell) has an attack of conscience and moves to side decisively with integration, at horrible cost to himself and his family.
Maybe because it was his first movie leading role or because Corman kept him under control, Shatner is unusually restrained here and it really works well for him. Then young and handsome, he is particularly effective at portraying seductive yet smarmy sexuality. Most of the extras and small roles were people of the town in which the crew filmed and were eventually chased out of because of the dirty laundry the movie was airing. Charles Barnes as the high school senior leading the first Black students into the previously segregated school movingly conveys strength, dignity and sadness all at once. This was a role from the heart for him as the prior year he had actually done the same thing in real life.
Although The Intruder can be experienced as a film about racism, it can be even better appreciated as a mesmerizing character study. Adam Cramer is a blend of the calm salesman and someone desperate to obtain, a bully and a weakling, an Adonis who is deeply ugly. The development of this strange yet realistic character is the best thing about Charles Beaumont’s script. For someone with a tragically short life, Beaumont had significant artistic impact, including co-creating The Twilight Zone with Rod Serling and going on with Corman and much of the cast here to make the first adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s work for the big screen (The above-average horror film, The Haunted Palace).
Corman was known for making cheap, unpretentious grindhouse films about motorcycles, monsters and mayhem (Including Edgar Allen Poe adaptations I recommend here and here). He also, famously, never lost money on a movie. Until The Intruder that is, which was denied bookings in much of The South and in other parts of the country where the film was considered too controversial. It was re-titled multiple times to try to get it into theaters (as “Shame” and later with the cringe worthy exploitation title “I Hate Your Guts!”), but with minimal success. As the film’s reputation grew and it was the subject of some documentaries and festivals, it finally broke even four decades after its release.
The only thing I didn’t love about The Intruder was the climax, which though still downbeat comes out a bit happier than I expect it would have in real life. But if Corman had gone for complete realism his film would never have been released at all. This was daring stuff for its time, and both for its themes and character development The Intruder remains an impressive piece of cinema over 50 years later.
The Intruder is in the public domain and you will be able to find it online pretty easily. It took only the first six minutes for me to be completely hooked. After you have watched it, you might enjoy this short film about the making of the movie (spoilers).