Intruder in the Dust (1949)


(director: Clarence Brown; screenwriters: Ben Maddow/from the book Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner; cinematographer: Robert Surtees; editor: Robert J. Kern; music: Adolph Deutsch; cast: David Brian (John Gavin Stevens), Claude Jarman, Jr. (Chick Mallison), Juano Hernandez (Lucas Beauchamp), Charles Kemper (Crawford Gowrie), Will Geer (Sheriff Hampton), Elizabeth Patterson (Miss Habersham), Porter Hall (Nub Gowrie), David Clarke (Vinson Gowrie), Lela Bliss (Mrs. Mallison), Harry Hayden (Mr. Mallison), Alberta Dishmon (Paralee), Elzie Emanuel (Aleck); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Clarence Brown; MGM; 1949)

“A brilliantly accomplished “racial bias” cycle film of the 1940s.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A brilliantly accomplished “racial bias” cycle film of the 1940s. The earnest “social justice” melodrama is one of the best of that genre. It’s adapted by writer Ben Maddow from a book by William Faulkner. It’s set in a rural southern city (most of it shot in Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi). This amazingly uncanny early reaction to southern racism is told in a lucid and straightforward manner; it avoids clichés in its subtle presentation of its miscarriage of justice theme. Under the steadying helm of Clarence Brown, a southerner, the familiar narrative is given a fresh face. Brown’s low-key direction tastefully covers a series of ugly events that pits a white mob incited to lynch an innocent black man.

Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez) plays an “uppity” black landowner, resented by many of the racist white locals for refusing to act like a subjected black, who is arrested for shooting a white man in his back. Lucas asks white teenager Chick Mallison (Claude Jarman, Jr.), someone he befriended over a hunting adventure on his property, to get his uncle, the lawyer John Gavin Stevens (David Brian), to take the case. The lawyer’s job is made even more difficult by Lucas acting in a “stubborn and insufferable” way by not telling him all that happened and the murder victim’s twin brother Crawford Gowrie (Charles Kemper) inciting the mob gathering in front of the jailhouse to lynch the black man.

The story is never sensationalized by MGM, known for its glossy productions, but treated with the realistic soberness it merits as an adult film. It’s in one sense a mystery thriller that challenges the lawyer to find evidence that clears his client of the murder charges, but it’s mainly about the prevailing racist climate that divides the country and makes justice a hard sell in such a hostile climate. In this authentically creepy environment Lucas proves himself to be a courageous, wise, and forceful man; Chick will see beyond the narrowness of his “white supremacy” upbringing and get the ball rolling for justice to be served; Stevens will act in an honorable way without upsetting the old ways; Sheriff Hampton will remain a steely-eyed dedicated law enforcer who will not give his prisoner over to a mob; and, the feisty 80-year-old Miss Habersham will defy a lynch-mob by refusing to leave the courthouse where the prisoner is being held as she makes a stand for justice to be served.

It’s a film classic offering all of the following: a worthwhile and needed message, an excellent character study, a puzzling murder mystery, revealing local color in the world of grits, superb performances by the mostly nonprofessional cast and, in particular, by Hernandez and Brian, fine movie craftsmanship, and a powerful story that resonates.