INTRUDER IN THE DUST was the last of the four race-related movies (preceded by Home Of The Brave, Lost Boundaries and Pinky) that broke issue ice in 1949, and was the least successful at the box office, despite being a major studio product (MGM) steered by a prestigious director. The adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel, published the year before, drew the best reviews of the quartet and has stood the test of time as the most honest and believable of the group.
Small town Mississippi. A local sharecropper, ‘Lucas Beauchamp’ (Juano Hernandez), is accused of murder. The victim was a white man, with a brother bound for quick resolution. Lucas is dignified, independent, seemingly fearless. And black. While a mob gathers in anticipation of a spectacle of racial retribution, white teenager ‘Chick Mallison’ (Claude Jarman Jr.), who had been helped by Lucas and elderly ‘Eunice Habersham’ (Elizabeth Patterson), also white and as unfazed as Lucas, seek to show the sheriff (Will Geer) and a sympathetic lawyer (David Brian) that Lucas is innocent. The gathering crowd is out for blood.
The weak public response to this well-reviewed film could have been simply that with four movies dealing on race relations coming out within six months (and Pinky was a huge hit) the theme had diminished urgency. Or perhaps the particular subject of this story—an imminent lynching—was a mite too disturbing. The first three dealt with black characters (played by white actors in two of them) suffering insults and indignities: this ‘less sensational’ but more frank and daring plotline had a black man poised not for name calling but to be publicly slaughtered.
Activist poet and documentarian-turned screenwriter Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle, The Unforgiven) wrote the script, celebrated studio craftsman Clarence Brown (The Human Comedy, National Velvet, The Yearling) produced & directed. Filming took place on location in Faulkner’s stomping ground of Oxford, Mississippi, the small cast of professional actors backed by hundreds of locals used as extras. Cameraman Robert Surtees captures a lot of memorable, not exactly brotherhood-oriented faces. Apart from Brian’s lawyer character being given a few too many sententious opines (lefty Maddow or folksy Faulkner?), the brief (87 minutes) but telling story is presented with admirable candor and unforced naturalness; the festive carnival mood in the crowd scenes and the quiet tension in more intimate encounters soaking the film in atmosphere redolent of time, place and manner. *
Top-billed Brian, 34, was a new face (one previous role in Flamingo Road), who would prove adept at conveying serious authority figures (good and bad), while 14-year-old Jarman was famous from The Yearling. The imposing Cuban-born Hernandez had small parts in a handful of films as far back as 1914. At 53 this was his breakthrough role and the one he’s best remembered for; Lucas is a complex characterization, beautifully envisioned. Two of the supporting performances stand out: Elizabeth Patterson, 70, a little tower of moral strength as the patiently fearless lady who faces down the mob (Patterson’s father was a Confederate veteran), and familiar character face Porter Hall, excellent as the bereaved father of the murder victim.
Costing $988,000 to make, according to MGM records it only made $837,000 ($643,000 in the States, $194,000 abroad). The film’s reputation has endured long after the lackluster receipts. With Elzie Emanuel, Charles Kemper, Harry Hayden, Dan White, David Clarke.
* Watching the accusatory faces in the crowd scenes, it’s not hard to guess many of these same ‘folks’ were all-too-familiar with the type of ‘justice’ they were portraying for a “picture show”.