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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Clarence Brown | Intruder in the Dust

pride and prejudice
by Douglas Messerli

Ben Maddow (screenplay, based on the novel by William Faulkner), Clarence Brown (director) Intruder in the Dust / 1949

Although Faulkner tells wonderful stories, the power of his works lie in the language he uses to tell those tales, language that stretches out ideas, retelling them in different ways, and turning the ideas connected to them back upon themselves, so that what might be a simple event, a lynch-mob gathering around a small-town jail, as his Intruder in the Dust, takes on new and different meanings as his central characters react.


      Given the complexities inherent in Faulkner's works, it is almost impossible to imagine a film, particularly a Hollywood, narrative-driven film, to create the same impact. Yes, Faulkner's tale is about small-town prejudice and about a proud Black man, Lucas Beauchamp, who refuses to play the role of the "darkie" and almost loses his life for that. The book is also about a murder, but Faulkner is not as interested in the discovery of the murderer as he is in the relationship of his central figures—two young boys, Chick (Claude Jarman, Jr.), Aleck (Elzie Emanuel), an older woman, Miss Habersham (Elizabeth Patterson), and a lawyer reticent about getting involved, John Gavin Stevens (David Brian)—perceive and interact with Lucas (Juano Hernandez).

      The genre of Clarence Brown's movie is clearly more of a whodunit, with ancillary focus on the moral implications of the characters' involvement. And in pursuing the narrative thrust of Faulkner's work instead of following the psychological interrelationships between characters, Brown and screenplay writer Ben Maddow, as some critics have noted, erase the complexity of figures. Certainly the young Black boy, Aleck, is portrayed in the film as much more passive and indeterminate than he is in Faulkner's book. And that most certainly effects the way we see Blacks in the film. Since almost all the Black characters here are passive, Lucas Beauchamp's stubborn pride, his refusal to reveal to the Sheriff and lawyer Stevens what he knows of the murder and proclaim his own innocence, seems even more inexplicable.

      Also lost in this film is the gradual awakening of conscience for Chick, as he faces his own frustration for not being able to make restitution to Lucas for having given him shelter after falling in a creek. By refusing to grant a white payment for the act, Lucas has clearly put himself apart from the rest of the Black community with which the boy is acquainted. The relationship here, at least in the book, is a subtle one of both resentment and respect, a kind of hatred and a hushed, unaware love that is difficult to portray in a straight-forward narrative. And the young actor chosen for that role, perfect for conveying his sense of innocence and unawareness (just right for his earlier role in The Yearling), has a face that often remains too inexpressive and flat, making it hard to imagine that he is slowly growing in comprehension as the film proceeds.

      Yet for all that, Brown does capture some of the strange transformations through his splendid cinematography. In the scene where Chick returns alone to confront Lucas, we see first Lucas' eye behind the wooden bars of the cell, and then are shown the view from within looking out at Chick. The implication, of course, is that both Lucas and Chick are imprisoned, in different ways, by racial relations. But there is also, in both cases, a special way of seeing one another, a shared respect and admiration which is why, clearly, Lucas trusts Chick to solve the case over the adults, whose views have already hardened into outright prejudice.

      Brown's ghoulish presentation of the night voyage to the cemetery, the horse's refusal to enter the stream because of quicksand (in the film, Chick announces this, while in the novel it is Aleck who recognizes the horse's alarm), and the digging up of the empty coffin by Aleck, Chick, and Mrs. Habersham quite chillingly represent an act of not only irreverence, but an act that through these societal "outsiders," converts their desecration into a kind resurrection—at least for Lucas, since it proves that someone else has been involved in the crime.

      Similarly, the director intensifies the scene where Mrs. Habersham stands up to the leader of the lynch mob, challenging him even as he pours out gas and is about light a match. The show-down quality of this scene helps to remind us that, although most of the town's citizens seem to have joined the mob or at least have no compunction for watching the lynching as a sort of entertainment, that this feisty survivor of a more graceful past, stands in opposition to the contemporary mindless prejudice.

     And then there is Juano Hernandez's magnificent portrayal of Lucas as a strong bull of a man willing to die rather than abandon his sense of moral righteousness. His portrayal of a proud Black man, long before Martin Luther King and the vocal advocates of Black pride, is perfect.

    If in the end, accordingly, some of richer nuances of Faulkner's novel have been lost, the film Intruder in the Dust still is a strong portrayal of the author's concerns. In the context of my objections to To Kill a Mockingbird, it is clear that Brown's Intruder offers a solution to many of the same issues that Harper Lee's novel and Mulligan's film did not. Although Atticus Finch may share some of the gentle values of Gavin Stevens, the children and outsiders of that world could not save the innocent Black man from either being destroyed or destroying himself.

Los Angeles, June 15, 2012

1 comment:

  1. I believe that Lucas Beauchamp's reticence in defending himself indicates his steadfast refusal to beg. Surrounded by townspeople who hate him, he figures that they might be successful in murdering him anyway, so why help them enlarge their sense of power by making an appeal? You might say Lucas Beauchamp is proud to a fault, but then a fault like that would be a badge of honor for a man trying to survive in such a hysterically racist environment.

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