erik lundegaard

Movie Review: Intruder in the Dust (1949)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Intruder in the Dust” was one of several movies produced in the short progressive period between the horror of the Holocaust (when tolerance suddenly seemed like a good idea) and the paranoia of the Red Menace (when fuck it). They were called “message movies” or “problem pictures” and included such films as “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Crossfire” (anti-Semitism), “Pinky” and “Home of the Brave” (racism).

“Intruder,” also about racism, only got made because of one man, Clarence Brown, who learned at the feet of Maurice Tourneur, Jacques’ daddy, during the silent era, then became one of the main dudes at MGM during its lush glory days. He was also a member of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance, and a Southerner, making him an odd choice to push for such a racially progressive picture.

Intruder in the DustWhy did he do it? In Patrick McGilligan’s book, “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends,“ he talks about being in Atlanta during the 1906 race riots when 16 black men were lynched. Three decades later, William Faulkner published his novel about a near lynching, and as Brown recounts:

I didn’t walk, I ran up to the front office at MGM. “I’ve got to make this picture,” I said. “You’re nuts,” said [Louis B.] Mayer, because the hero was a black man. “If you owe me anything, you owe me a chance to make this picture,” I said.

There were battles throughout production—both on location in Oxford, Mississippi (Faulkner’s hometown), and at MGM. Mayer felt the protagonist, Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez), was “uppity,” and that the picture would lose money. He was right about the latter—did it even play in the South?—but the picture earned critical raves. The National Board of Review included it on its top 10 list, and it finished second to “All the King’s Men” in the New York Film Critics Circle’s best picture category. It received multiple nominations from the WGA, Golden Globes, and British Academy, and won BAFTA’s short-lived “UN Award” (for the film “embodying one or more of the principles of the United Nations Charter”). In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote, “By all our standards of pre-eminence, this is—or will prove—a great film.”

He’s right. At the least, I was startled by how good “Intruder” is. The cinematography is often reminiscent of Dorthea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs, while Beauchamp (pronounced “Beach-em”) is a type of rich, powerful African-American character that Hollywood, always worried about the Southern market, rarely allowed to be seen on screen.

It also bears a passing resemblance to a later, much-beloved film. Maybe more than a passing resemblance.

Before Atticus, before Superman
Seriously, when “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, didn't anyone bring up “Intruder in the Dust”? Let's count it off:

  • A black man is jailed for a horrific crime.
  • He’s represented by a white lawyer.
  • A kid, related to the lawyer, is central to the story—the main character, more or less.  
  • There’s a standoff on the courthouse steps between an unarmed white person and a white mob, who want to lynch the black man.
  • The real criminal is a white relative of the victim.

Yes, there are differences. It’s murder rather than rape. The black man here, Beauchamp, is proud, almost haughty, as opposed to the humble, bland Tom Robinson. Our lawyer, John Gavin Stevens (David Brian), is no Atticus, and starts the case assuming his own client guilty. Rather than the lawyer’s children, Scout and Jem, it’s the lawyer’s teenaged nephew, Chick (Claude Jarman, Jr.), who acts as our eyes and ears. Oh, and Stevens proves Beauchamp innocent even without a trial. Apparently, in 1949 Mississippi, the criminal justice system worked.

The courthouse-steps confrontation not only prefigures “To Kill a Mockingbird” but—indulge me—“Superman vs. The Mole Men,” an hour-long intro to the 1950s TV series, in which the Man of Steel stops a Texas mob from lynching an alien. Of course, being Superman, he’s hardly unarmed, but otherwise the dynamic is the same as in the other two: the stalwart one (without a gun) against the angry many (Southern racists) to protect the defenseless one (black/alien). (Note to readers: If you know of other such scenes in novels/movies, write me.)

Here, the stalwart one is old Southern white lady, Miss Eunice Habersham (Elizabeth Patterson), sitting in a rocking chair and doing her mending. Why her? Calculation on the part of Stevens. The mob, he says:

...would pass even [deputized] Will Legate sooner or later when there's enough of them. But there's one thing that would stop them. Long enough anyhow. And that's somebody without a gun. [Pause] A lady. [Pause] A white lady.

I have to admit, I always found the “Mockingbird” scenario absurd. Atticus thinks one unarmed man can turn back a mob in the middle of the night? Him and his lamp and his book? Really, he’s only saved because Scout and Jem show up, and Scout (a white lady) asks questions of different people in the mob. She humanizes them.

Faulkner’s way is smarter, and Patterson, supposedly handpicked by Faulkner, is a story in herself. Born in Tennessee in 1875, 10 years after the Civil War, she died in 1966, a year after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She began her career on stage, and became a frequent character actress on Broadway before doing the same in movies. The subhed to her New York Times obituary reads: “Was Said to Have ‘Played Mother of About Every Star in Hollywood.’” Here, she mothers this role into being. She was Atticus before Atticus, Superman before Superman.

Her nemesis in the scene is the perfectly named Nub Gowrie (Charles Kemper), the brother of the deceased, and the man who actually did the killing. He’s a Southern stereotype—fat, ineffectual, unethical—but you also get a sense of a man trapped in his role. As in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Nub is propelled along by the expectations of the mob.

There’s already a sleepy, carnival atmosphere in town, as folks gather to watch the lynching, and Gowrie, sitting in his truck, is confronted in by-the-way fashion. A woman with a baby begins it. (Think about that for a moment.) She says, “Well, Mr. Gowrie, when you reckon you gonna get started?” Jokes are made, Nub gets fed up, and after he gets a metal canister overflowing with gasoline, he walks across the street, sloshing things as he goes, to confront Miss Eunice through the screen door. She refuses to budge. So he dumps gas on the floor, and, with a bully’s grin, lights a match.

Miss Eunice: “Could you step out of the light so I can thread my needle?”

And that defuses it. Literally. Nub waves the fire out, puts the match in his shirt pocket (nice touch), and we get the following exchange:

Nub: Miss Habersham, I ain’t gonna touch you now. You’re an old lady but you’re in the wrong. You’re fightin’ the whole county but you gonna get tired. And when you do get tired, we gonna go in.
Miss Habersham: I’m goin’ for 80 and I’m not tired yet.

Then she stands up, goes to the porch, and talks to the crowd. “Go home! Everyone one of you, go on home. You oughta be ashamed!” Trying to shame the crowd. So she was Joseph Welch before Joseph Welch, too. 

To be honest, I think the scene should’ve ended with “I’m not tired yet.” But the movie keeps doing this. It keeps pulling back to make grander, progressive points that deflate the power of its smaller scenes. It doesn’t trust its micro and insists upon the macro. It wants pontification. 

The worst example is in the movie’s penultimate scene.

Micro > Macro
“Intruder” opens beautifully with the arrival of Beauchamp in the custody of the benevolent sheriff (Will Geer), and his walk through a gauntlet of tense, Southern faces. Beauchamp, unbowed even in handcuffs is almost contemptuous here; and on the courthouse steps, he turns and orders Chick to get his uncle to represent him. Interestingly, though he asks for him, he never confides in the uncle; he confides in Chick, with whom he has a history. Halfway through the movie, Stevens wonders over this. Why didn’t Beauchamp trust him? It’s Miss Habersham who answers: “You’re a white man,” she says. “Worse than that, you’re a grown white man.” Worse than that. From a 1949 movie? Amazing.

Most of the movie’s casting (Miss Eunice, Beauchamp) is perfect, but Brian, I have to say, is all wrong for Stevens. Born and bred in New York, he doesn’t attempt a Southern accent; he just has that bland, post-World War II voice. There’s something unpleasant about him in look and manner, too; something pinched in the eyes. In his obit, from 1993, the Times wrote, “Mr. Brian repeatedly portrayed characters who were ruthless or powerful or both, including some villains in Westerns,” and I can see it. But maybe that’s what makes him right for this? Stevens isn’t an Atticus, after all. He’s supposed to be the hero but he actually gets in the way of justice. Everyone else does the hard work—digging up graves, jumping into quicksand—while he stands around pontificating and sucking on his pipe.

He’s doing the same in the movie’s penultimate scene.

By this point, Nub has been arrested for the murder of his brother, the crowd dispersed, Beauchamp freed. We get some awful dialogue between Chick and Stevens as they watch the crowd disperse (“It’s alright, Chick”/“Is it?”), when silence would’ve spoken volumes. Then a few days later, Beauchamp shows up at Stevens’ office to settle his debts, but Stevens, all paternal benevolence, refuses payment since he didn’t do anything. (He’s right.) Beauchamp insists; Stevens mentions that he did break his pipe, and it cost two dollars to fix. Beauchamp says he’ll pay for that, then pays him with: a bill, two quarters and 50 pennies. “I was aimin’ to take ’em to the bank, but you can save me the trouble,” he says, with a glint in his eye. Then he insists, as in any transaction, that the pennies be counted. Stevens, still with the upper hand, tells him to do it. Which he does. And as he does, we get this exchange:

Stevens: That night in the jail—why didn’t you tell me the truth?
Beauchamp: Would you have believed me?

It seems straightforward enough, this back-and-forth, but there are chasms beneath it. Stevens is acting the great white father here, even though he knows what he knows; and instead of playing along, Beauchamp calls him on it. Beneath the bland words, he’s calling Stevens a racist. And that’s too much for Stevens, our ostensible hero, whose face suddenly darkens and becomes pinched; and he puts up a barrier—a book—between himself and Beauchamp. He expects Beauchamp to leave. But Beauchamp doesn’t leave. He keeps standing there until Stevens testily admonishes him. 

Stevens: Now what. What are you waiting for now?
Beauchamp: (Standing taller) My receipt.

Holy crap, that’s good. The movie really should’ve ended there (the novel, in fact, does), or with Beauchamp walking outside, and through the town, and past the people that wanted to lynch him just a few days earlier. But instead we pan back to Stevens and Chick on the balcony, watching Beauchamp. And we get more pontificating:

Chick: They don’t see ‘em—as though it never happened. ... They don’t even know he’s there.
Stevens: But they do—same as I do. They always will as long as he lives. Proud, stubborn, insufferable. But there he goes, the keeper of my conscience.
Chick: Our conscience, Uncle John.
(Music wells up: THE END)

MGM saves the white man in the end by letting him sound profound; by pretending he’s the hero. The story knows different.

SLIDESHOW


  • INTRO: Lucas Beauchamp (an amazing Juano Hernandez) arrives at the police station, unbowed, despite being charged with the murder of a white man.

  • The crowd isn't exactly friendly. 

  • It is, however, reminiscent of Dorthea Lange's photography. 

  • John Gavin Stevens: the lawyer Beauchamp asks for but never trusts. Not exactly Atticus Finch. 

  • The movie's villain, the perfectly named Nub, walks with a cannister of gasoline to confront another of the movie's heroes. 

  • Miss Habersham is Atticus before Atticus, Superman before Superman. 

  • The threat is ignited. 

  • And defused. “Could you step out of the light so I can thread ma needle?”

  • Shaming the crowd that has no shame. She's Joseph Welch before Joseph Welch, too.

  • The movie ends on this false note, with this false hero. 

  • Faulkner's novel ends on this true note with this true hero: ”My receipt." *FIN*
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Posted at 07:03 AM on Mon. Mar 14, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s  

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