Movies you might have missed: “The Intruder”

Movie Review

“The Intruder”

Directed by Roger Corman

Starring William Shatner

1961, 83 minutes, PG-13

After the landmark Supreme Court Brown v. the Board of Education decision struck down segregation in public schools in 1954, a cottage industry of mobile hatemongers was born, playing to the fears and manipulating the emotions of those who viewed segregation as a way of life and somehow intrinsically linked to their Southern identity.

These charlatans took to the road and traveled from one hot spot to the next, and where there was no trouble, they were adept at creating a little of their own. This variety of racist agitator included such loathsome figures as Asa “Ace” Carter, whose claim to fame was penning the “Segregation forever” line in the inaugural address of Alabama Gov. George Wallace; Connie Lynch, who often sported a vest adorned with the flag of the Confederacy; and J.B. Stoner, who would eventually be jailed for his role in the notorious Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that took the lives of four young black girls.

In The Intruder a 30-year-old William Shatner presents a pretty convincing composite of just such a hatemonger. Shatner is the consummate con man, full of easy charm and courtly manners that he uses to ingratiate himself with unsuspecting locals. When he checks into a local hotel the desk clerk looks him up and down and says, “I suppose you’re a salesman” and he replies, “You might say I’m a social worker”.

Well attired for the tropical climes of a Southern state in a white linen suit, he attempts an air of respectability and immediately seeks out the local gentry to add money, power and influence to his poisonous plans. Shatner’s character attempts to pass himself off as a patriot, but before the film is finished he will be exposed as a coward, a leering cad, and a master manipulator of the mob mentality.

Perhaps the most significant scene in the film occurs when Shatner’s character mounts the courthouse steps on a sweltering Southern evening to deliver a speech characterized by red-baiting, anti-Semitism and junk science. Viewers will note that in tone and approach it doesn’t differ much from Obama-bashing peddled by the tea party ultra right today.

And although sadly the film lacks many three-dimensional African-American characters, it does provide a scene that illustrates the terrifying violence to which innocent African Americans could be subjected at any moment, when a family has their car nearly overturned by a mob in an orgy of violence spurred on by Shatner’s speeches. The local sheriff offers little more than a shrug in reply.

Interestingly, the Shatner character is presented as something other than a common garden-variety homegrown “redneck.” In the film he is a Los Angeles native, representing a Washington, D.C., based right-wing outfit styling itself as “The Patrick Henry Society.”

Keen observers of cinema will recognize a few veteran character actors among the cast, but it is mostly non-professionals and locals who populate the roles in the film. Noteworthy however are Frank Maxwell, who in real life suffered from a career interrupted by the notorious blacklist, and here plays a local newspaper editor who slowly confronts his own prejudice until he is leading the fight for integration instead of opposing it. Viewers will also enjoy Robert Emhard as the well-dressed and rotund representative of the ruling class who has a personal capacity for violence that surprises even Shatners character. Lastly, Leo Gordon, a one-time real-life inmate of San Quentin prison, is perfect as Shatners neighbor in the local hotel who sees right through his cheap facade and confronts him on the true nature of his character.

The time of production and on-location shooting gives the film a frightening authenticity. Unfortunately it also contains a number of racial epithets of the ugliest kind. All in all, it still proves to be a valuable document in examining how hate speech is based on a fraudulent philosophy and can lead only to tragedy.

Photo: Pathé-America Distributing Company