Clarence Brown made a long and successful career, after getting his start taking over The Last of the Mohicans from Maurice Touneur in 1920 (see last Thursday's article), as a director of MGM romantic melodrama, scoring several notable successes with Garbo and Crawford. 1931's Possessed, with Joan C., is particularly impressive, a fluid early talkie with pre-code sass, class consciousness, glitz and glamour, and a famous shot where a train slowly glides past a yearning Joan, each compartment featuring illuminated scenes of the urban sophistication she craves. It's like a beautiful tracking shot, only Joan and the camera stand still and the world tracks past.
As excellent as Brown's glossy studio artistry was, it pales somewhat compared to the surprising masterpiece that appears out of left field in 1949. Intruder in the Dust was made as part of MGM's anniversary output, which also included Siodmak's The Great Sinner, a movie which exemplifies the MGM approach to art, at both its best and worst—expensive, tasteful, based on a great book or classy true story but completely unfaithful to it (in this case both the life of Dostoevsky and his novel The Gambler), packed with glamorous stars and exotic art direction.
By contrast, Brown's film hardly seems like something Louis B. Mayer would recognize as classy at all. Set in a small town, but eschewing ruthlessly the sentimentality of the popular Andy Hardy series, based on a novel by William Faulkner, but disarmingly faithful to the dark side of Faulkner's vision (a tight, intense script by the soon-to-be blacklisted Ben Maddow), the film is stark, unpredictable and uncomfortable in ways that would seem to get Brown drummed out of the dream factory for life. As it was, his career survived for six more films in the next three years, but they were to be more conventional genre fair, leaving Intruder in the Dust as a sole slice of nail-biting heightened realism in Brown's oeuvre.
The structures imposed on Brown when he wanted to make his dream project—a limited budget and schedule—seem to have conspired to liberate him and to intensify the movie's best qualities. The film has no stars and virtually no music. It's largely shot on location in Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner's home town. Robert Surtees's photography is stark and deep-focus, enabling Brown to cover his action quickly in few shots. All this enhances immeasurably the story.
So. The story. A dignified black man is held in the town jail, charged with murdering a local redneck. A young boy who has formed an uneasy friendship with the proud man tries to clear him, with the help of his skeptical lawyer uncle and a local widow. The basic plot follows their investigation, somewhat ineffective as a whodunnit since there's only really one suspect. And yet the film seems dizzyingly unpredictable.
In part this is because the high-contrast black and white, long silences, and muted performances rob the film of the usual melodramatic pointers. In part it's because Maddow's excellent script avoids creating easy sympathy. Both the boy and the lawyer are guilty of some surprisingly racist speech and action at the outset, while the black characters are so guarded that they initially seem mysterious, unknowable. Both of these things will change as the plot develops, but they do their work of unsettling the viewer from the outset.
Even the minor characters throw us off-beam. The boy's parents are more concerned with observing correct table manners than with the imminent possibility of a lynching. The town's sheriff, Will Geer (Grandpa Walton himself) is a beacon of integrity on the one hand, but on the other seems complacent to a fault, and disinclined to investigate what seems on the face of it an open and shut case. And the murdered man's family are initially spoken off with dread and revulsion by their fellow townsfolk, but the father proves to be a figure of some dignity.
Porter Hall, a hard-working character man best remembered today as a short, truculent and cigar-chomping producer in Sullivan's Travels, is here unrecognizably grizzled, stubble seemingly sprouting from every corner of his face, and one arm amputated (a trick of costuming: hall himself had two arms). In one scene, he finds the sheriff and a couple of black convicts digging up his son's grave. The expected threatening ambience descends, with Hall producing a large pistol from his shirt. But when told that the grave is empty, he orders his sons to exhume the coffin, and his reaction when it's suggested that the missing corpse may be concealed in nearby quicksand is one of a kind of religious horror. Throwing himself from a bridge into the quagmire, he scrabbles in the mud for his missing son, before announcing with a grin, "He's here! I'm standing on him!"
Like I say, surprising.
The rest of the cast is equally excellent. Elizabeth Patterson, who played spinsters and widows in Remember the Night, Hail the Conquering Hero and I Love Lucy, makes a formidable elderly heroine, her frail frame and quavering voice belying a steely resolve. Claude Jarman, best known as the juvenile hero of Clarence Brown's The Yearling, is far more effective in this film. He's lost some of the androgynous beauty he had as a child, but gained in assurance. His lack of range, more obvious in the earlier film, is actually an advantage here, blending well with the low-key tone. All this underplaying just makes the film more nerve-racking.
If some similarities in the plot inevitably remind us of To Kill a Mockingbird, David Brian's pipe-smoking lawyer is no Atticus Finch. For such a fount of wisdom, dispensing moral lessons between puffs, he starts the movie completely in the wrong. He assumes his client is guilty, and while he regards the prospect of a lynching as regrettable, feels that really it's the guy's own fault. In fact, although he's energized into a vigorous defense by the revelation that the poor man is innocent, he never seems to realize that a guilty man would deserve equal protection under the law. But it's made obvious to us.
As the town's emotional temperature rises, there's a disturbing carnivalesque atmosphere: most of the mob aren't angry, so much as vapidly curious, sight-seers arriving by bus like the rubberneckers of Wilder's Ace in the Hole. The lack of a composed score to editorialize on our behalf leaves the atmosphere anxious, threateningly still. We are thrown into turmoil by the strong racist language, some of it used by otherwise sympathetic characters, language not banned by the censor, but seemingly never used in films of this period—for fear of offending, or in an effort to pretend that such words and attitudes don't exist?
At the heart of it, enclosed in a real jail cell, with the most frighteningly real heavy clanging doors in film, lies Juano Hernandez, as the victim of this miscarriage of justice. With the face of a big, baleful frog, and an air of serenity and pride, Hernandez's Lucas Beauchamp is an affront to the town's racists because he insists upon his dignity with every stride he takes. Somehow his refusal to show fear just makes us more afraid for him. If he can be destroyed, and so easily, nobody is safe. While other lynch movies evoke the terror of mob rule (Fritz lang's Fury, Cy Endfield's The Sound of Fury), Intruder achieves this without seeming to aim at particular moral points, it merely shows its characters in motion and the events unfolding with their own terrible momentum. And unlike all other movies on this theme until the sixties, it deals explicitly with race, which is of course what lynching was all about in practically every instance.
Special thanks to Melanie Addington.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.