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Intruder in the Dust (DVD Review)

28 Feb, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars David Brian, Claude Jarman Jr., Juano Hernandez, Porter Hall, Elizabeth Patterson, Charles Kemper, Will Geer.

Hollywood’s pool of standout William Faulkner adaptations isn’t among the deepest around, and 1959’s attempt to bring The Sound the Fury to the screen with Yul Brynner in a wig still looms as one of its decade’s most foredoomed projects. But over the years, Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels (adapted from Pylon in 1957) has attained something close to classic status, and I share the fondness of many for 1972’s Tomorrow (which boasts what Robert Duvall has called the favorite of his performances); the Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward interplay plus those hot summery Lee Remick dresses in The Long, Hot Summer; plus the heavily implied raunch in 1933’s The Story of Temple Drake (adapted from Sanctuary), which showed how far a barn and Miriam Hopkins’ trademark early ‘30s allure could go to help spur on the industry’s dreaded Production Code.

To this list — and Angels aside, probably leading it — is this now semi-obscure 1949 adaptation of Faulkner’s same-name 1948 novel. Of all studios, genteel MGM sent a crew to the author’s hometown of Oxford, Miss., to film a story about a proud black man (“uppity” is the general view) who is saved from murder conviction and probably even worse by the intervening teens of both colors. The director was one of MGM’s biggest (Clarence Brown), whose work was also too frequently among its most impersonal. But the Massachusetts-born filmmaker had grown up and gone to college in the South — and had also worked spectacularly well just three years earlier with Claude Jarman, Jr. on The Yearling, winning the youngster a special Oscar for what is still a lovely movie. Among many other things, Dust would be a successful reunion.

Jarman (by this time, his voice had started to change) plays Chick, an adolescent who lives with his parents and a boarding uncle (David Brian) — who, in a strange casting aside that must not have occurred to anyone, looks a hundred times more like Chick than mom and dad do. Otherwise, Brian (an actor I always liked in childhood) makes Uncle John a warmly mentoring kind of guy — schooled in old prejudices and a certainly a part of the milieu but also a reasonable man and no firebrand. He’s the one the accused Lucas character (played by Juano Hernandez, launching more than a decade of solid screen work in Young Man with a Horn, The Breaking Point and — as a judge — in Trial) asks to represent him when he’s caught standing over a white man who has been shot in the back. And one with whom he has had some personal history.

Faulkner himself reportedly asked veteran character actress Elizabeth Patterson (the real-life daughter of a Confederate soldier and later “Mrs. Trumbull on “I Love Lucy”) to play the elderly local who guards the prison entrance from agitated yahoos with lynching on their minds. Steely but caring, she typifies a movie is full of idiosyncratic touches that don’t rub our noses in them. Everything is artfully low-key and restrained, which is one reason why occurrences that are unexpected (the flinch-inducing use of the ‘N’-word in an MGM movie; a subplot that deals with a black teenager being involved in digging up a white man’s grave) carry a lot of power. And it’s an effective aside to have the victim’s father (Porter Hall) sporting only a single arm, given that Hall was an actor usually identified with comedies. Though, this said, he forever lingers in the mind as Ace in the Hole’s Albuquerque newspaper editor who’s wary of Kirk Douglas but hires him anyway in an atypical moment of lapsed judgment.

You can’t put a price on the location footage — from a time when studios still wanted to do everything on the backlot. You get a sense of what it’s like on Oxford’s main drags in and around the county seat — and inside the more rural general store out in the woods, where some of the local dim-bulbs wile away their hours.

There’s some bad speckling in the first few seconds of this “on-demand” print’s opening credits, but the images otherwise look fine. Dust was a relatively early credit for the favored cinematographer of my childhood and adolescence: three-time Oscar winner Robert Surtees, whose many subsequent looked-like-a-trillion accomplishments included King Solomon’s Mines, Mogambo, Oklahoma!, Ben-Hur, the interiors of The Collector (Robert Krasker did the exteriors), The Graduate, The Arrangement and The Last Picture Show. Incredibly, the year Surtees shot The Graduate, his Oscar nomination came instead for the pretty but stillborn Rex Harrison Doctor Dolittle. He probably got bonus points for having to navigate all those giraffes and animal feces of all walks, no minor feat.

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