The Intruder (1962) is a film that Roger Corman, star William Shatner , writer Charles Beaumont (who penned numerous Twilight Zone episodes) and a cast of relative unknowns can put atop their resumes. Predictably, Corman’s most progressive endeavor was his only commercial flop. The Intruder can also lay a considerable claim to being Corman’s best film. Shot in 1961, during the very early stages of the civil rights movement, The Intruder was extraordinarily risky, so much so, that AIP, Corman’s studio, would not touch it. Corman and his brother Gene produced by refinancing his home. A few gutsy critics lavished admiration and praise, and, after Cannes banned it, a few smaller overseas festivals gave it awards. Alas, awards do not count as a return on investment, and a desperate Corman and his initial distributor Pathé made the drive-in rounds with four different titles in a vain effort to recoup costs. Whether under the moniker Shame, The Stranger, or I Hate Your Guts, it was a hopeless cause. Pathé eventually backed out and Corman distributed the film itself, securing the loss of his own investment.
The filming was no less tumultuous. Corman could have shot the film on back lot, but wanted Southern realism. While the leads were Hollywood actors, the crowds were made-up of townspeople, many of whom were as bigoted as the characters they played. Corman produced a watered down, alternative script for locals to read. Even with the script’s subdued version, the production was filled with tensions.
For the part of the sociopathic bigot, Corman picked the unknown newcomer William Shatner. Shanter later said he would have paid Corman for the part and despite being a Canadian Jew, Shatner embodies Cramer like an evangelical snake oil salesman.
For the incitement-to-hatred crowd scenes, Corman shot all of the long shots with Shatner silently delivering his fascistic speech (adding dialogue in post-production) so the crowd had no idea what he was saying. The closeups, shot after much of the crowd had dispersed, were filmed with Shatner actually delivering his lines. Corman saved the cross burning scene until last, after which director, cast, and production crew immediately drove North, getting out of Dodge.
The Intruder has a refreshingly complex script. Two familiar character actors here have surprisingly three dimensional roles: Frank Maxwell as Tom McDaniel sides with integration, but only in loyalty to the law, not from moral conviction. Leo Gordon was typically known as a stock western heavy. Here, he plays the rowdy and uncouth Sam Griffin,driving his wife straight into the arms of extrovert charmer Cramer. When the infidelity is discovered, Griffin does not retaliate, or seek revenge. Rather he advises Cramer to leave town. We do not expect this out of Griffin. Nor do we expect this crass vulgarian (or so he seems at first) to be the only local intuitive enough to see Cramer for what he is. Additionally, Griffin shoulders some of the blame for is wife’s unfaithfulness. This is Gordon’s best role and one of the few times he was given a part worthy of his skills.
Other character roles are fleshed out well by actors such as Robert Emhardt and Joey Greene. The writing is complex enough to invite comparisons to the Budd Boetticher/Burt Kennedy collaborations.
Shatner turns in a great, commanding star performance (no, I am not kidding). Like the script itself, Shatner’s Cramer is fast-paced and smart. He utterly convinces, making one wish he had more roles like this. Beaumont adapted the script from his own novel and actually surpasses his source material.
It is easy to look back and point accusatory fingers long after mores have changed, but Corman and company had the guts to go face-to-face with racial issues in their contemporary climate. It took him 40 years to break even with this film. That he was that far ahead of his peers is true horror.