- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 22, 2009

How many esteemed American movies satisfy the following conditions?

• Derived from a novel by a Nobel Prize-winning author;

• Made within a year of the book’s publication;

• Shot with evocative distinction in and around the author’s hometown;

• Recruited the author’s favorite riding horse for a conspicuous role;

• Pleased the author but failed at the box-office despite overwhelmingly favorable reviews.

Obviously, it’s a trick question and applies to only one title: “Intruder in the Dust,” Clarence Brown’s movie version of William Faulkner’s odd amalgam of murder mystery and topical polemic. A modestly budgeted but prestigious production from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which preferred glamour and opulence, the movie opened in several major markets in November 1949 after a love feast of a world premiere a month earlier in Oxford, Miss., Faulkner’s home since he was 4.

The cinematic “Intruder” proved an expert and stirring distillation of a novel that was far from tailor-made for the screen. Edmund Wilson remarked that it was “one of the more snarled-up of Faulkner’s books” in a review for the New Yorker in October 1948, and he may have been underestimating the persistent obstacles to coherent reading.

Thankfully, the filmmakers never envisioned fidelity to the writer’s predilection for runaway run-on sentences and argumentative digressions. Unhappily, the movie was ignored by audiences, North and South. The neglect was easier to arrange in the South, where bookings were scattered, reflecting wariness about a plot that champions a quixotic effort to prove the innocence of a proudly obstinate black farmer, Lucas Beauchamp, who is accused of murdering a white man and could face a lynch mob if the effort fails.

Beyond the South, “Intruder in the Dust” generated so little must-see sentiment that it ended up on the bottom half of double-bills, a status facilitated by its sheer incisiveness and lucidity as a human-interest suspense melodrama and appeal for racial good will. Brown, screenwriter Ben Maddow, cinematographer Robert Surtees and their associates worked with such efficiency that the movie ran only 87 minutes. The executive who approved the film, Dore Schary, ruefully observed that studio boss Louis B. Mayer had been correct in his sour prediction that the picture would never be a hit. Schary took comfort in his own conviction that “Intruder” did the studio proud.

An additional disappointment awaited contemporary admirers: The film failed to secure a single Academy Award nomination in the 1949 race. Brown, whose tenure at MGM went back to the silent period, had been a five-time directing nominee; three of those nominations accumulated during the 1940s, when he made “The Human Comedy,” “National Velvet” and “The Yearling” for MGM.

Surtees was a little ahead of his long history with the Oscars, which eventually added up to 16 nominations and three awards. Maddow’s skill, also evident a year later in John Huston’s film version of “The Asphalt Jungle,” was destined to be curtailed by the blacklist. Juano Hernandez, whose embodiment of the ornery and indomitable Lucas commenced a belated but haunting career as a Hollywood character actor, somehow missed a date with Oscar recognition — and kept doing so for 20 years.

In retrospect, “Intruder” carries its longevity and Southern origins more persuasively than the Oscar-winner of 1949, “All the King’s Men,” which had a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for bragging rights. Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature a year after “Intruder” was a first-run attraction. Novel and movie served to revive interest in his work, arresting a decline that had lingered during the 1930s and World War II, when his most conspicuous credits were screenwriting collaborations with Howard Hawks on “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep.” After the Nobel, it was fashionable to rediscover Faulkner’s own fiction.

It’s possible that the film version of “Intruder” suffered from a certain topical fatigue, appearing the year when Hollywood seemed to catch up with race problems. “Home of the Brave,” “Pinky” and “Lost Boundaries” were also released in 1949. They haven’t aged as well. Neither have scores of the 500 movies chosen by the National Film Preservation Board for the Library of Congress’ official list of important pictures, the National Film Registry. “Intruder” has collected 20 years of brushoffs. The movie did enjoy a secure art-house revival status for many years.

Thirty years later, the status may be eroding. “Intruder in the Dust” is available only in a VHS edition that dates back to 1993. It’s an ideal candidate for the Warner Archives DVD collection. A cooperative venture with Turner Classic Movies, this archive already draws on the vintage MGM library. In fact, some older Brown films are available, including one of his silents with Greta Garbo, “A Woman of Affairs,” and a 1929 saga about the Alaskan Gold Rush, “The Trail of ‘98.”

Overdue for a new edition, perhaps enhanced by newsreel coverage of that Oxford premiere, “Intruder in the Dust” remains an absorbing and admirable movie. Its literary pedigree, authentic setting, thematic emphasis and innate decency command enduring respect and affection.

TITLE: “Intruder in the Dust”
RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1949, two decades before the advent of the film rating system; ominous atmosphere and fleeting violence; thematic elements that involve racial prejudice and animosity)
CREDITS: Produced and directed by Clarence Brown. Screenplay by Ben Maddow, based on the novel by William Faulkner. Cinematography by Robert Surtees. Art direction by Randall Duell and Cedric Gibbons. Sound supervision by Douglas Shearer. Film editing by Robert J. Kern. Music by Adolph Deutsch.
RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes
VHS EDITION: MGM Home Entertainment
WEB SITE: www.mgm.com

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