Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Intruder in the Dust (1949)

In the end of Intruder in the Dust (1949) Lucas Beauchamp, an older black man arrested for a murder he did not commit, is asked by the white lawyer why he did not tell what had happened at the scene of the crime. "Would you have believed me?" Lucas asks, to which the lawyer has no reply. It is a remarkably powerful scene, for two special reasons. One is that the white lawyer has been set up as a hero in the film, the other is that Lucas says it with such a matter-of-fact tone of voice, albeit with a flash of anger. Everybody in the town had taken it for granted that Lucas was guilty, and since he is all too aware of the fact that this is the white man's world he refuses to play any games with them. He is a proud man, and he will not let go of his dignity and self-respect. This puts his behaviour at odds with what the white majority can accept, even those that would consider themselves progressive. In films about racism and injustices committed against African-Americans it is usually in the end white characters who are the heroes. But here Lucas Beauchamp is the hero, not for doing heroic acts but for not giving in or giving up, and he is not sentimentalised.

This is an angry and sad film, based on the novel by William Faulkner and shot in Faulkner's home town of Oxford, Mississippi. It was one of the last films made by Clarence Brown, being both its producer and director. Brown was an impressive filmmaker even though few of his films are remembered today. He was perhaps at his best in the 1920s but he is more famous for making films with Greta Garbo (he was her favourite), such as Anna Christie (1930) and Anna Karenina (1935). Other known films are National Velvet (1944), with Elizabeth Taylor on a horse, and the very sweet The Yearling (1946). Considering the kind of films he usually made Intruder in the Dust is something of a departure, but this was a film he wanted to make, and he struggled with MGM to be able to make it. He was from the south (although born in Massachusetts he lived in Tennessee from when he was 11) and he did have personal experiences of events such as those that take place in his film, as had Faulkner.

The adaptation was done by Ben Maddow, one of the more interesting scriptwriters of the 1940s and 50s. He had previously participated, together with Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz, in the making of Native Land (1942), a film about attacks against workers and unions in America in the 1930s, with Paul Robeson as narrator. He also wrote scripts for two films by John Huston, The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Unforgiven (1960). In between he was blacklisted for his politics, eventually naming names in the HUAC hearings. During those years he wrote several scripts with Philip Yordan as his front, among them Men at War (1957), directed by Anthony Mann and one of the best war films ever made. Well, one of the best films ever made.

The style of the Intruder in the Dust is one of naturalism, in all aspects. It is shot on location, using deep focus and long takes, and there is no music. The use of natural sound is one of the strengths of the film, where every footstep, every breath, is emphasised, to add atmosphere and tension. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees' black and white cinematography is excellent, with the Southern milieu so evocatively captured you can almost feel the sweat and smell the stench. The combination of direction and cinematography is often magnificent. However, there are a few scenes where the dialogue is didactic, when the only purpose of the words seems to be to hit the audience over the head with the implications of what has taken place, as if we were not intelligent enough to understand what we were seeing. But there is also an irony here, in the occasional discrepancy between the words spoken by the white characters and what Lucas might have said had he been given the chance. Whether this was deliberate is not clear, and I leave that to the individual spectator to guess for themselves.

Lucas is played by Juano Hernandez, of Puerto Rican heritage (he grew up in Brazil). Before Intruder in the Dust he had done two films directed by Oscar Micheaux, Lying Lips (1939) and The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940). Then in 1950 he made three fine films, two by Michael Curtiz. He played the jazz musician Art Hazzard in Curtiz's Young Man With a Horn (1950) and in The Breaking Point, Curtiz's version of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, he played Wesley Park, friend and partner of Harry Morgan. Finally he played Uncle Famous Prill, a man threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, in Jacques Tourneur's magnificent Stars in My Crown. Ten years later he played sergeant Skidmore in John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge (1960). There are several similarities between Intruder in the Dust and Sergeant Rutledge, where Woody Strode plays the title character as a sergeant in the 9th cavalry who is accused of rape and murder. He has the same pride and rigour as Lucas. A major difference between the two films is that Rutledge has lines such as "It was all right for Mr Lincoln to say we was free, but we're not. Not yet! Maybe someday!" and at another point he is saying that he is not a "swamp-running nigger", "I ain't that. I'm a man!" Lucas has no such lines, but he does not need them. Just by standing tall and looking the white man in the eye he says the same thing using only his gaze, body and posture.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is another book turned into film that is similar to Intruder in the Dust. It too tells the story about a black man in the south being wrongfully accused of violent crimes. I leave the books out of the equation, but of the two films I prefer Intruder in the Dust. It is the braver and less comforting film, partly because it takes place in the present whereas To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the past. Intruder... also feels less conventional. In both films a simmering mob approaches the jail to kill the black prisoner. The jail is guarded by the white righteous lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. In the similar scene in Intruder in the Dust it is a frail old woman, knitting away, who face down the mob.

In "The Shadow and the Act" a great piece of film criticism from 1949, Ralph Ellison writes about blacks in Hollywood films and among the films he mentions Intruder in the Dust is the only one he cares much for. African-Americans have been abjectly treated by Hollywood for much of its history, much as in society at large, and that is primarily what Ellison's article is about. Even films that were well-meaning (i.e. attempts to criticise racism) are often so in a muddled, confused, cowardly and often patronising way. But not Intruder in the Dust. Ellison suggests that this is the only film that can be "shown in Harlem without arousing unintended laughter". That is reason enough to celebrate it, besides it being a very fine film aesthetically.

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This post obviously ties in with the previous one, Film as a window to the past.
Ralph Ellison's essay can be found here.

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