Saturday, June 16, 2012
Clarence Brown | Intruder in the Dust
pride and prejudiceby Douglas Messerli
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).
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.
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