Before “To Kill a Mockingbird” there was “Intruder in the Dust,” a story similar in theme to the former movie starring Gregory Peck, and, in my opinion, just as good a film about the deep South in the middle of the last century. Released by MGM in 1949, and based on a William Faulkner novel of the same name, this modest picture has no major stars in it—which is just fine. It was actually shot in and around Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, and this gives the film a wonderfully authentic look that lends even more credibility to its themes of courage, prejudice and routine violence.
The story centers on a black man accused of the murder of a white man in a small unnamed southern town. Young Chick Mallison (played by Claude Jarman, who also starred in The Yearling) who is white, was treated with kindness by the accused while out hunting in the recent past, and decides to return the favor and goes hunting for clues. Encouraged by his uncle, a lawyer, and helped along the way by an elderly lady with a stubborn streak (and going behind his father’s back, who has gone off to Memphis for business), he does his best to see that justice is done.
In addition to the aforementioned on-site background, there is something just as powerful, and more disturbing, about the film, in its portrayal of the possible violence of a lynching taking place in the town. This is treated with such matter-of-factness it becomes even more chilling—witness the almost silent way that people come in droves to the lovely town square and wait near the old jail and hope for a view of what may or may not be a horrific event. Faulkner, of course, knew all this first hand as a son of the South, and through the script, written by Ben Maddow, we see both the good and the bad of that time and place—its communal ties, its racial divides and the way people sometimes showed grace under the pressure of a turbulent history.
Posted by: David