Hollywood never provided a richer picture of the Jim Crow South than Clarence Brown's "Intruder in the Dust," a fresh, inspired adaptation of William Faulkner's 1948 novel.
It's not a message movie about racial injustice. It's about the American experience of growing up by crashing through the precepts and prejudices of your town, your state, your region — and your family. It combines a coming-of-age fable and a detective story with an acute dissection of tribal beliefs and herd mentality. Long out of print, this MGM milestone has just entered the Warner Archive Collection. (Warner Archive DVDs are made on demand through warnerarchive.com.)
In the words of "Invisible Man" author Ralph Ellison, "Intruder in the Dust" shows a white boy recognizing in a black man "virtues of courage, pride, independence and patience that are usually attributed only to white men." Comparing "Intruder in the Dust" to three other race-themed movies from 1949 ("Pinky," "Lost Boundaries" and "Home of the Brave"), Ellison said it was "the only film that could be shown in Harlem without arousing unintended laughter, for it is the only one of the four in which Negroes can make complete identification with their screen image."
"Intruder in the Dust" will move or enthrall anyone of any race who has ever rebelled against family traditions as an act of conscience — or witnessed a mob gathering heat. Most crowd scenes in movies have bum tickers. In this film, Brown, shooting on location in Oxford, Miss., works on his extras like a pacemaker. They emit a horrifying impatience and a blinding appetite for vengeance.
In the scariest sequence, hordes of country people seem ready for a holiday parade as they flock to the town jail, waiting to see what Crawford Gowrie (Charles Kemper) will do to Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez), the black man accused of killing Crawford's brother, Vinson (David Clarke). The camera moves with a mother as she strides through the masses with her child in her arms. She stops at Crawford and asks, with skin-crawling expectancy, "Well, Mr. Gowrie — when do you reckon you'll get started?"
Gifted actors like Will Geer as Sheriff Hampton and Porter Hall as the Gowrie patriarch mesh seamlessly with nonprofessional bit players and extras. A chiseled face at a barbershop grabs your attention like a Walker Evans portrait, only to startle you with a racial epithet. Sometimes nonprofessional casting can be lazy or stuntlike, but not here, not for one second. Brown uses his homespun ensemble to convey the way a community breeds attitudes about race and crime in its citizens' bones. This director is a master at conjuring atmosphere from evocative landscapes and from faces that reflect the bifurcated soul of the South.
Rising above them all is Lucas, a proud African-American landowner who carries himself like gentry. The way Hernandez plays him — superbly — there's always something goading and accusatory about his deliberate speech and watchful gaze and big-shouldered stride. Chick (Claude Jarman Jr.), a gawky white teenager, once humiliated Lucas by attempting to pay the black man for a good turn. When it looks like Lucas will be lynched for killing a white man, Chick helps to clear Lucas' name, ignoring his family's demands that he stay home and out of trouble.
Even Chick's rational lawyer uncle, Gavin Stevens (David Brian), thinks Lucas is guilty. But Chick, his black friend Aleck (Elzie Emanuel) and the elderly Miss Eunice Habersham (Elizabeth Patterson) join forces to prove the rest of the townspeople wrong, even if it means a midnight trip to a graveyard smack in the middle of Gowrie country. The movie's dialogue says that Southern blacks like Lucas looked for help from white children and women, not white men, because white males were "cluttered" with "facts" (that is, assumptions). But Chick and Eunice are not idealized innocents. They can rebel against the power structure because they're not overly invested in it.
As Chick, Jarman is sensitive without being sickly — just as he was in Brown's other great picture, "The Yearling" (1946). He has always been the anchor of "Intruder in the Dust." What looks better as the years go by is the film's depiction of Chick's uncle, lawyer Stevens, as a white Southerner with a working conscience and limited consciousness. The movie punctures most of his bogus wisdom without losing its appreciation for his good intentions and good works.
When Lucas tells Stevens that he wouldn't reveal the truth right away because he knew the lawyer wouldn't believe him, the accusation hits home. "Intruder in the Dust" is extraordinary because it locates moments of truth within the half-truths and lies of a racist society. It's a great movie.