Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Intruder in the Dust

One of the movies I finally got around to watching yesterday is Intruder in the Dust. It's available on DVD, so I can still recommend it after the fact.

Based on a novel by William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust is set in a small Mississippi town (presumably in Faulkner's mythical Yoknapatawpha County; the film was actually film in Faulkner's hometown of Oxford) as it was in the 1940s. There's been a murder, and the police are bringing in farmer Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez) as the obvious murderer. It's evident from first sight that Beauchamp is black and, since the dead man was white, this case is going to have racial overtones. In fact, the deceased was a brother in one of those small-town clans (of the sort that I talked about when I recommended The Firemen's Ball back in November 2009). So there are a lot of family members baying for blood, and this being the South of the 1940s, there's the palpable fear that theere's going to be a lynching. Well, some of the people (the blacks) fear it, while others (the whites) have gone to the county lockup to crowd around and see what's going to happen.

A member of that latter group is young Chick (Claude Jarman, Jr.), who is spotted by Lucas because of an incident that happened some time earlier when Chick fell into an icy creek on Lucas' property. Town legend now has it that Chick is friends with Lucas, and Lucas asks Chick to get his uncle John (David Brian), who is a lawyer: Lucas needs somebody to defend him. All the (white) adults, unsurprisingly, think Lucas is guilty as sin, and Lucas is reluctant to defend himself because he knows that none of the adults will believe him. Chick, on the other hand....

Chick's willingness to believe Lucas leads to an illegal night-time exhumation with a surprise, and the realization that perhaps Lucas is innocent after all -- except that he won't have much of an alibi until after any autopsy. Meanwhile, the patriarch of the murder victim's family has his own desires for wanting to see justice done, and the crowd in front of the county jail is growing. Time is short to uncover the identity of the killer.

Intruder in the Dust works fairly well as a straight-up mystery/suspense movie. As commentary on race relations, however, I'm not so sure. There's something about Juano Hernandez, who was born in Puerto Rico, that screams, "Not a southern black!" Not that he could pass as white; but in all of his films that I've seen, he just seems different from the other blacks. True, he's supposed to be somewhat different here, but in other movies like Trial he also comes across as being slightly miscast. I say all this despite his being a good actor. Secondly, characters such as the sheriff (Will Geer), and especially the victim's father (Porter Hall), seem to turn on a dime. One little shred of evidence that Lucas might not be guilty, and they suddenly become crusaders for justice. I can't help but think that in real life, they'd be more like Linda Darnell's character in No Way Out: she could certainly be persuaded to do the right thing, but she's clearly more concered about what's in it for herself. Finally, there seem to be a few convenient coincidences in the plot. As we saw in Fury, a lynch mob doesn't seem to concerend about whether any "innocent" people trying to protect the target of their ire get killed in the crossfire. And what's the old lady doing seeking legal advice on a Sunday night?

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