In the early 1960s, director Roger Corman was on fire. Coming off a wave of ultra-exploitational titles for the fledgling film production/distribution company American International Pictures (AIP), which arguably defined late 1950s teen cinema, with such titles to his credit as Premature Burial, Pit and the Pendulum, Creature from the Haunted Sea (all 1961), Last Woman on Earth, The Little Shop of Horrors, House of Usher (all 1960), The Wasp Woman and A Bucket of Blood (both 1959), as well as She Gods of Shark Reef, Teenage Cave Man, Machine-Gun Kelly, War of the Satellites, I Mobster (all 1958), and Sorority Girl, Teenage Doll, Rock All Night , The Undead, Attack of the Crab Monsters and Not of This Earth (all 1957), Corman had mastered genre filmmaking, and was looking around for a new challenge.
The range of Corman’s work during this period is astounding; Pit and the Pendulum and House of Usher were the first two Gothic horror films in Corman’s long-running and highly influential series based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe; A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors were two of the first truly “sick” comedies, both shot in a matter of days; Machine-Gun Kelly introduced a young Charles Bronson to audiences, in a period piece designed as a nod to the Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930s; Teenage Doll and Sorority Girl were pure teen exploitation; and Attack of the Crab Monsters, War of the Satellites and Not of This Earth were clear-cut science fiction.
Most of Corman’s films during this formative period were shot in a week, on budgets of $100,000 or less – The Little Shop of Horrors was famously shot in two days and a night, for roughly $40,000 – although the Poe films represented a real step up for the young director, at least in terms of physical production values. With 15-day schedules, budgets in the $300.000 to $400,000 range, Panavision and Pathécolor, Corman could relax a little, and take some more time with the material. But even on these films, he often finished ahead of schedule, and he seemed driven to make one film after another, all of them incorporating thematic concerns outside the realm of conventional genre cinema; teen crime, peer pressure, consumerist materialism, even humanist parables, as in Teenage Cave Man, in which the “Stone Age” the protagonists are living in is revealed in the film’s final moments as actually being a post-apocalyptic world after the Third World War has destroyed most of the planet.
While Corman could dabble in social commentary in these films in a rather light and tangential fashion, as a lifelong liberal filmmaker he longed to do something utterly uncompromising. Bolstered by the continuing commercial success of all of his previous films, he decided to direct a film on the racial tensions of the 1960s, shot on location in the American South. And so, right in the middle of his run of commercially successful films for AIP, Corman went off on his own and, with his own money and no studio support, made The Intruder (1962) for a mere $80,000, creating one of the most brutal, honest, and unflinching examinations of American racism in cinema history.
As Corman told me in an interview on 21 April 1986,
it was a film I wanted to do. At that time, things were going very well, and I had never had a failure. I think I directed seventeen or eighteen films, and they were all successful. So at that point, any idea I came up with independent distributors would back me on. We never missed, so I bought this novel having to do with integration of schools in the South. This is around 1960. And I prepared the script with Charles Beaumont, the writer of the novel. And to my great surprise I was a little more naïve than I am now. All the companies that had agreed to back me on any kind of idea I came up with turned me down on this one. So I decided to back it myself, and it’s one of those things that sounds as if it’s very logical, but it wasn’t logical. I only worked with a couple of professional actors. (1)
The film’s plot is simple: Adam Cramer (a young, impossibly handsome and charismatic William Shatner) arrives on a bus in Caxton, a fictional but nevertheless all too real small Southern town, vaguely describing himself as a “social worker”, and immediately begins stirring up trouble, with the help of ardent racist Verne Shipman (the always grossly appalling Robert Emhardt).
Things soon spiral out of hand, with a ritualistic cross burning attended by members of the Ku Klux Klan, a mass meeting in which Cramer incites a mob to lynch an innocent young African-American man falsely accused of rape, and a series of beatings by Cramer’s new-found supporters directed against all who would oppose him. In the end, Cramer is exposed as the real source of all the trouble, and is forced to take a bus out of town. He will probably start all over again in another small town, bringing hatred and disaster wherever he goes.
As Corman said:
I wanted to shoot in the Midsouth, which was where most of the integration problems were taking place. But I didn’t want to be in a Southern state. I wanted to have, in my own mind, the protection of a Midwestern state and the laws there. Looking at a map of the US, I found what’s called the boot heel of Missouri, which runs along the Mississippi River in a little kind of wedge south of Missouri proper, between Arkansas and Tennessee or Kentucky, something like that. There I was able to get a southern look and southern accents for the townspeople. All of that worked right.
Shatner’s portrayal of Cramer is absolutely fearless; dressed in a dazzling white suit, charming and polite to the white citizens, and viciously antagonistic towards African-Americans and the integrationists who oppose him, Shatner is both the centre of the film and entirely in command of both the camera and the townspeople who are the main stars of the film. During a key sequence in the film, in which Shatner as Cramer delivers an impassioned pro-segregation speech, it’s clear to the viewer that the large audience supports him all the way. Corman told me that many of the people who were at that rally were really pro-segregation, and thought Shatner was the hero of the film.
As Corman remembered:
Oh, they loved him! They believed him! I recruited these guys out of the public park. They had great faces, and I said, “This is the man who is coming to town, and I want you to be part of this group”. When Shatner said, “This country shall be free and white”, they cheered, and they believed him all the way. Some of them were heartbroken at the end of the film when they realized that Cramer was the bad guy. It was a great shock to them.
[When the local citizenry realized the film’s true intent] I was thrown out of two towns with flat-out threats from the sheriff of one county and the chief of police in another. Being in Missouri really didn’t make any difference. The sheriff actually told me, “If you’re in town when the sun sets, you’re in jail. And don’t ever come back.” The final sequence of the film took place in a schoolyard, and we had shot in East Prairie, Missouri. The first day or two days of this final sequence went OK, and then the sheriff told me to get out of town.
We couldn’t go back, so I shot some swings in a part in Charleston for half of the next day, and the chief of police kicked me out of Charleston, and we ended up shooting at a country schoolyard. It was summer, and we were out in the country, where there were no police or anybody to see that we were there, and we finished the sequence. Nobody has ever noticed, but the size of the swings varies slightly from shot to shot because they were in three different areas. Luckily people were more interested in the scene itself.
Shot in gritty black-and-white by the gifted Taylor Byars, and using, as Corman noted, just a few professional actors supported by a host of unsuspecting local residents pretty much playing themselves, The Intruder transcends fiction filmmaking to become a neo-realist document of a time and place in which fear, violence and racial intolerance were the “norms” of Southern America.
On the DVD of The Intruder, Corman and Shatner both offer running commentaries on their experiences during the making of the film. Sitting in a screening room in Los Angeles they watch the film, and though we only hear them in voiceover, it’s clear they can’t believe what they see on the screen. Were they really that crazy? That young and idealistic? Did they really have the guts to make a film this daring, in such a hostile environment?
It’s fascinating to hear these two men, many years later, looking back at their younger selves, and marveling at their sheer nerve and determination to get the film made, no matter what the cost. Shatner’s performance, in particular, is amazing; Adam Cramer is so utterly loathsome from first frame to last that the role would seem a surefire “career killer” in the hands of a less capable actor.
But combined with Corman’s own zeal for the project, Shatner delivers a portrait of shattering intensity, as believable as any headline of the era, and imbued with just as much intolerance, bigotry and racial hatred as the actual villains of the period who fomented race riots, lynchings and cross burnings.
Yet there was a downside to all of this verisimilitude; the film, even at a cost of just $80,000, lost money, the first and only Corman film to do so. No one wanted to distribute it, even after it received rave reviews, and even after Corman, in a desperate attempt to make back the film’s meagre budget, changed the title to the cheaply sensational I Hate Your Guts.
As Corman told me, with more than a slight air of sadness and resignation,
with The Intruder, I did a film that I believe was very good, and it got wonderful reviews. One of the New York papers called the film a major credit to the entire American motion picture industry. It won a number of film-festival awards, but it was the first film that I ever made that lost money, which taught me something. The public simply didn’t want to see that particular kind of film. So you learn fairly early on that, unless you are as good as [Ingmar] Bergman or [Federico] Fellini, you can’t do what you please. I think I was a pretty good director, but I had no illusions that I was working on that level. Unless you’re that good, you have to stay fairly close to a commercial subject.
After The Intruder, I tried to do a film that would work on two levels. This is really the core of my filmmaking philosophy, without getting too grandiose about it. On the surface level would be an entertainment film, a genre film, an exciting film of a certain type, and on a deeper subtextual level would be a film that would have some meaning to me. It didn’t always work out that way. Sometimes it has a meaning to me, but nobody else will find any meaning in there at all. But at least for me there was something there, and that type of filmmaking seemed to be a type of filmmaking that worked for me and was successful. So I got some satisfaction out of it, and the films themselves were a commercial success.
But the raw, unvarnished vision of The Intruder remained a one-off in Corman’s long and prolific career, and indeed, with 1971’s Von Richthofen and Brown, Corman essentially retired from directing in favour of an extremely lucrative career in production and distribution, returning just once to helm the rather disastrous Frankenstein Unbound in 1990. Since then, he has concentrated on producing ultra low budget exploitation films for DVD and straight-to-television release. It’s sad that Corman stepped back from directing more serious films after the financial debacle of The Intruder, a film he remains very proud of to this day.
But in the end, the profit motive proved overpowering, and Corman retreated to the land of straight genre film production, although certainly in some of his last films as a director, such as The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967), you can see that he’s still yearning to make a comment on the temper of the times. But he would never again do it as explicitly as he does in The Intruder; it’s interesting to contemplate what might have happened if he had followed his vision in this regard, no matter what the financial consequences.
The Intruder/I Hate Your Guts (1962 USA 84 mins)
Prod Co: Filmgroup Inc. Prod, Dir: Roger Corman Scr: Charles Beaumont, from his novel Phot: Taylor Byars Ed: Ronald Sinclair Mus: Herman Stein
Cast: William Shatner, Frank Waxwell, Beverly Lunsford, Robert Ernhardt, Leo Gordon, Charles Barnes, Charles Beaumont, Katherine Smith