The Intruder is a movie filmed in 1961 by legendary renegade producer-director Roger Corman featuring William Shatner in his first ever feature-film role as a leading man.
The movie is set in the Deep South following the historic 1954 Supreme Court ruling (Brown v. Board of Education) in which the Federal Government of the United States denied individual states (or at least tried to) the right to segregate their schools along racial lines.
Enter the racist, yet eminently charming demagogue Adam Cramer (William Shatner) into the fictitious small southern town of Caxton. Cramer has come from Washington D.C., sent by his organization, the also fictitious "Patrick Henry Society" (based on real-life anti-federalist Patrick Henry - echoes, no doubt, of the "John Birch Society") to see if he can't rouse the masses to oppose the legal ruling.
The white townsfolk of Caxton are overwhelmingly opposed to the recent Supreme Court ruling - but, they are also overwhelmingly resigned to the fact that their ignoble battle has been lost - the law is the law. The first black students have already enrolled in the local school and local life seems just about ready to enter a new integrated reality. But is the law the law? "Whose law?" asks Cramer - the clever subjectivization, planting seeds of division, has already begun. (Warning: clips contain racial epithets.)
Cramer rents a room in the town and sets about gauging and carefully stoking opinions in his role as a "social worker" seeking to correct one of the "greatest wrongs the government has ever perpetrated". Many of the townsfolk are simple, God-fearing folk, listening to fire and brimstone preachers on the radio and TV. Perfect fodder. A subtle, well thought-out campaign is initiated against them, including push-polling on the subject of racial integration. Tensions in the town begin to rise...
Cramer then enlists the support of the town's leading business figure Verne Shipman (Robert Emhardt).
It isn't long before violence erupts and the local black church is set ablaze - Cramer stands at the very heart of the Ku Klux Klan-style violence.
But, Adam Cramer is also very smart, doing all he can to publicly denounce violence, lest his movement lose credibility. "We're not a mob, we're a citizen's committee," he reminds his supporters. The black students finally march to school; Cramer rouses the town's citizens further:
A violent attack takes place against a white non-racist newspaper editor who came to the defense of a black man...
...while Cramer's efforts are doing little to actually prevent blacks from attending integrated schools.
So he hatches a more sinister plan: Seducing a young local girl...
Cramer persuades her to trick one of the newly enrolled black boys to come down into the school basement...
There, she suddenly screams out and falsely claims that the black student tried to rape her.
This whips the townsfolk up into an even greater fervor. "See? This is what happens when blacks are allowed to study with whites!" - is the reaction of the mob. There may even be an old-style lynching.
But, fortunately, not everyone is jumping aboard the Cramer bandwagon...
And that's where we'll leave the plot as we don't want to give away too much.
We thought this movie was outstanding and also one of the best, most meaningful roles that Bill Shatner has ever had. As we've observed here on several occasions, Bill Shatner, perhaps sourcing sub-conscious aspects of his own personality (including his toupee use), is remarkably engrossing when playing craven insanity. And that is what he plays here, although the role is more subtle, more insipid, more calculated than mere madness alone.
As Bill Shatner notes in his book Up Till Now, the actor was so enthralled by such a deliciously nasty role, that he took a percentage of any future profits (which ended up being essentially nothing) plus expenses instead of a salary, just so he could help make this controversial low-budget movie happen.
The Intruder was based on a novel of the same name by Charles Beaumont and according to Bill Shatner's book was shot in a mere three weeks on a shoestring budget of approximately eighty-thousand dollars. The actor also notes that The Intruder was shot in and around Charleston, Missouri, which isn't too far from neighboring Mississippi, Kentucky or Tennessee - this meant that performing certain incendiary scenes for The Intruder represented a genuine risk to the cast and crew. "...the town had found out what this movie was about and they were not happy about it. Really not happy," he writes.
The latest DVD release of this movie feature a video in which Bill Shatner, Raw Nerve-style, converses with Roger Corman about The Intruder.
In this discussion, Corman conveys just how difficult it was for him to finance this particular project despite already being a successful producer at the time. The subject matter proved to be too hot to handle for his usual backers - so he and his brother ended up re-mortgaging their homes to pay for the film. The troubles didn't end there. Distributors had the same fears and a major cinematic release never occurred. Sadly, The Intruder ultimately ended up being marketed as an exploitation B-movie (which it most definitely is not) under titles such as Shame or I Hate Your Guts! and finally just about broke even on its production costs. In the ensuing years since its release, The Intruder has, thankfully, gained many new fans.
It is also important to underscore that The Intruder is not a cheap shot movie about "bigoted redneck Southerners". Without giving too much away, there are other important voices inside the town that do not go the way of the mob. Some become convinced that Cramer's way is the wrong way, others are cynical from the start.
On the surface, The Intruder is a movie about the civil rights struggles of African-Americans. But the movie also succeeds as a powerful case study of the power of demagoguery. What exactly is demagoguery? The traditional definition is of a person who manipulates popular prejudices, misconceptions and fears for his or her own self-aggrandizement or to achieve a particular political, monetary or other goal. Imagine a trial in which a lawyer asks leading questions of a witness: "Hadn't you had enough of your husband's lies?" as opposed to "What was your opinion of your husband's conduct?" - that kind of language, often requiring potentially untrue assumptions to be taken as fact, and altered into the form of statements, is demagoguery. It is a true craft and is, to some degree, practiced by almost all politicians and public figures.
In the US, demagoguery specifically targeted at uneducated, white rural populations, as depicted in The Intruder, has arguably existed in one form or another for centuries. From the "snake oil salesmen" of the Wild West to the televangelists of the 20th century to today's fire and brimstone "preachers" such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and political populists such as Sarah Palin. All have something to sell, if not necessarily a commodity alone, often an entire belief system, and many potential buyers.
Adam Cramer feared that blacks, resentful over slavery, could take over the South, mongrelize the white race, carry out violent acts of revenge against whites, bring down the "superior" civilization etc., etc. Today's demagogues convince their followers of a conspiracy hatched in Kenya, implemented by ACORN, financed by George Soros, which can partially be resisted by buying gold from Goldline etc., etc... The manipulation of emotions; the promotion of beliefs over reason and knowledge; the calculated shift from the objective fact to the subjective belief ("Whose law?" asks Adam Cramer); the half-truths and innuendo and lots of UPPER CASE YELLING!!! are arguably all the same tricks as used by Cramer too.
Anyway, who'd have thought that William Shatner was such a major pioneer of socially conscious dramas? There's slavery and the responsibility of power in The Andersonville Trial, torture and the human will in The Tenth Level, war crimes in Judgment at Nuremberg and of course a myriad of themes addressed in Star Trek. And The Intruder isn't the only time Bill Shatner has played a bigot either - but we'll get to that in a future toupological analysis.
Let's move swiftly to the hair.
Bill Shatner wears his standard-for-the-time "Jim Kirk lace":
This being a movie and him being the star, the toupee really is perfectly presented at all times. The only deviation here from the norm is that the frontal swoosh is a little more restrained than usual.
There are Bill Shatner movies where the toupee gives hints about the character, others where it performs stunts, others yet where there is a notable cry for help, but here the toupee is very much in the background, albeit providing solid support throughout. It is perhaps because of this that there is a singular toupological moment in the film. A "real hair reflex", where Bill Shatner's character looks into the mirror and strokes his hair:
We may never know if Bill Shatner asked Roger Corman for this moment: "Roger, I've read the script and I'm a little worried that there isn't enough for my toupee to do. Do you think we could at least put in one scene where I sort of at least acknowledge it? It may sound funny, but my toup is kind of like a pal and it would really mean a lot to me if I could give it just this one on-screen moment."
"Sure, Bill. I noticed you two had a special thing going from the moment I met you."
"Sure, Bill. I noticed you two had a special thing going from the moment I met you."
The version of this movie known as Shame has since fallen into the public domain and can be watched online with a clear legal conscience, for example here. But we don't hesitate to recommend purchasing The Intruder and placing it in your permanent movie collection. A terrific, powerful and absorbing film of which Bill Shatner should rightly be very proud.