Often, it’s the quietest movies that make the most impact, and resonate with the viewer for days – even weeks – after watching. Clarence Brown’s stirring drama Intruder in the Dust, is one such film. Based on a novel of the same by William Faulkner, it tells of a crisis averted but not solved. African-American landowner Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez) is found standing over the dead body of lumberman Vinson Gowrie, with a recently-fired pistol hidden in his pocket. Presumed guilty, Lucas is marched off to the local jail, through an angry mob of local white folk who are desperate for what they call ‘justice’, but probably runs closer to revenge.
Lucas asks for an attorney, appealing to Chick (Claude Jarman Jnr.), a young face in the crowd to fetch his uncle, John Gavin Stevens (David Brian). Initially reluctant to take the case – regarding it as a script that’s already been written – John is persuaded to stand on Lucas’ side by Chick, who feels a strange mix of hatred and respect for the landowner, who once rescued him from drowning in an ice-cold river. Stevens’ job is complicated by the threat of the lynch mob, public interest in a murder case that involves an already-resented suspect, and Lucas’ refusal to name the man he suspects to be the killer.
The naturalist and realistic style invites the viewer to participate in the action and to solve the crime. The ending of Intruder in the Dust may be inevitable, but this film isn’t really about the plot, or even the characters, rather the attitudes and emotions of a small Southern town. If that sounds progressive for 1949, that’s because it was – despite critical approval, the film was a box office flop. Perhaps, in the years after WWII, American moviegoers weren’t ready to sympathise with a complex, unapologetic black character or acknowledge the racial prejudice that lay closer to home.
Although Brown instigated the project, the fact that the film was made at all was really the result of producer Dore Schary, who favoured ‘message pictures’ over splashy entertainment. When he tool over as head of production at MGM in 1948, he persuaded studio chief Louis B. Mayer to purchase the rights from Faulkner. Mayer’s initial reservations were well founded, but it’s unlikely that he could’ve predicted the film’s longevity and eventual appreciation.
Set, and filmed, on location in Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, explores racial resentments and social divisions within the region, in a subtle but thought-provoking way. Local actors and extras were used at Brown’s insistence – their weathered, cynical faces add to the film’s authenticity. Intruder in the Dust is particularly notable for it’s presentation of an African American character – Lucas Beauchamp is complex, and rounded, a successful black man living in a white world. His contradiction of expectation and his inability to fit into the box he’s meant to ‘belong’ leads to a wariness. In the segregated South, he is a deviation from the norm. The popular reaction to the unknown? Distrust.
John Stevens’ decision to represent Lucas is driven by Chick, who wants – once and for all – to prove to Lucas that the landowner is ‘black’, and that he is ‘white’. His willingness to help Lucas stems not from guilt, but from a desire to respect the ‘natural’ order. Chick isn’t a Good Samaritan; he’s the unfortunate product of his environment, willing to do embrace the ‘right’ to further the ‘wrong’. In contrast, John’s preconceptions cloud his actions – although he refuses to believe that a black man could be innocent he attempts to help Lucas by arranging for the trial to be heard in another town. He wants to think he’s better than the rest of the town, in reality he’s just the same. By the end of the film, Lucas has the upper hand. His ‘innocent’ verdict renders the entire town helpless – shamed as the judgemental guilty party – a guilt that weighs heavily on the collective conscience. Lucas refuses to let them off the hook, maintaining a presence in the town and challenging locals to look him in he eye. They want him to let go and forgive their guilt, but he remains firm.
The film’s final scene, shot in the attorneys’ office that overlook the main street, sums up the tension. Lucas arrives to pay the attorney his fee, which John refuses. Lucas won’t feign gratitude, and insists on paying, knowing that the ‘freebie’ is another guilt bargain, He can – and will – pay his way. He doesn’t want or need self-serving favours from white folk.
The film ends on a liberal and moral high note, as John tells Chick that ‘Lucas wasn’t in trouble – we were’. Although he’s finally recognised his flaws, it remains unclear whether his experience with Lucas’ case will impact how he perceives and interacts with other blacks in the future. The line too came to represent more than Intruder in the Dust, and evolved onto a mantra that came to define liberal filmmaking – but that’s undermining Clarence Brown’s real achievement, which was to create an identifiable and powerful character that lasts much longer than the closing credits.