The Intruder: Roger Corman’s Overlooked Masterpiece

The Star

Before he was Captain Kirk, and long before he was T.J. Hooker, William Shatner starred in Roger Corman’s 1962 classic The Intruder. It was the young actor’s first starring role in a movie, despite extensive experience in theater and TV. The movie was also a first for Roger Corman: his first project to actually lose money. It’s obscure even for a Corman production, but it’s worth checking out because it’s one of his best.

The Story

Made when the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, The Intruder deals with racial tension in the south, particularly the effects of integration in schools. William Shatner is in top form as Adam Cramer, a racist lobbyist who comes to the small Southern town of Claxton on the eve of integration. Cramer intends to stop the schools in Claxton from being integrated, and to do so he intends to win the heart of the townsfolk with his own racist ideology.
While most Hollywood accounts of racial tension tend to sugarcoat the issue, The Intruder pulls no punches. The language is harsh, the violence is swift and brutal, and the whole production has an air of honesty about it that you’d never find in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Racism Laid Bare

The racists in the intruder aren’t the typical Hollywood constructs, sub-human creatures consumed by hate. Instead we see little old ladies, upstanding fathers, and people who look like refugees from The Andy Griffith Show tossing around n-words and forming bloodthirsty mobs. When the pervasive racism of 1960s America is placed in context, rather than used as a negative trait restricted only to obvious villains, the enormity of the problem becomes clear.
In addition to its narrative power, The Intruder impresses on a technical level. In one of the films most memorable sequences, we zoom in on Cramer’s eyes as he watches a protest in the local schoolyard and then zoom back out to see him standing on the courthouse steps that night, delivering a rousing anti-black, anti-Jew, anti-Commie speech to an enthusiastic crowd.

Production Problems

From the beginning, the production of The Intruder was riddled with problems. The crew faced opposition from the small Southern town in which they shot. Chased from location to location by police, the climatic mob scene is actually a mish-mash of footage from three schoolyards and an establishing shot from a fourth. The crew even received death threats while they were shooting.

Release and Legacy

Despite winning accolades at the Venice and Los Alamos film festivals, The Intruder was pulled from Cannes due to its controversial content. For that same reason, the film had a hard time finding distribution. Especially in the South, where the kind of racism the film demonized was still prominent. Re-released under the titles Shame and I Hate Your Guts, The Intruder still struggled to make back its meager budget. Thanks to home video, the production is officially in the black after forty odd years.
Who knows? If The Intruder had been a hit, it’s possible that the Roger Corman filmography we know and love today could have been very, very different.