The 1949 movie adaptation of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust offers a different kind of race-relations narrative. In the story, we meet a white teenage boy named Chick Mallison who has been trying to repay the kindness of a black man – a landowner, which is a rarity in his day – who took care of Chick when he fell in a cold creek. The man, Lucas Beauchamp, is proud and dignified and will not hear of his hospitality being reimbursed, not even through gifts. However, when Beauchamp is arrested for the murder of a white man, he needs the boy’s help.
Predating the Academy Award-winning adaption of To Kill A Mockingbird by thirteen years, this story has both conventional and unconventional elements. By this stage in film history, we’ve seen the young white Southerner, baffled by a racist social order that makes no sense, carry us through a regional bildungsroman, and we’ve also seen the white lawyer who is willing to defy lynch-mob culture to defend an innocent (black) man. However, this lawyer is no Atticus Finch: John Gavin Stevens, Chick’s uncle, originally takes a much more foreboding stance on Lucas’ guilt. At first all he wants to know is: why did you shoot him? But Lucas confides in Chick, and as the mob outside is ready to overtake the supposed villain, the teenager has to solve the mystery of who really shot Vincent Gowrie.
William Faulkner regularly used the precarious nature of race in his plot twists: the weird black man in “Barn Burning” who warns the victims of Abner Snopes’ forthcoming actions, the stoic butler in “A Rose for Emily” who aids through his servitude in concealing a corpse upstairs, or the ever-faithful Clytie in Absalom, Absalom! who stands by her father until the last. Well, Lucas Beauchamp is the opposite of those characters— he is no servant, no aider, nor abetter. He stands on his own, even apart from the black community; Chick even remarks that it’s like the other blacks don’t even see him. In that, Chick is Lucas’ only hope.
In the film, we get some of the conventions of Southern storytelling: the despicable white family disdained by blacks and whites alike, the black man wrongly accused, the white youngster who values righteousness over custom, the lynch mob ready for blood. However, the story has no trite conclusions. Having an elderly lady stand off the mob while knitting in a rocking chair . . . we don’t see that too often. And unlike poor Tom Robinson of To Kill A Mockingbird, Lucas Beauchamp gets away with his life.
Intruder in the Dust could have been a better movie if the acting wasn’t so plastic. As I watched it, I had no clue how it was going to turn out, and tried to look past the forced dialogue and melodramatic scene-setting. Having read several of William Faulkner’s novels, I know that you can’t depend on him for neat and tidy resolutions that warm the heart and soul. But this time, it turns out OK . . . for everyone except old Nub Gowrie, who escorts one of his sons to jail for killing the other, while a proud black man saunters off down the crowded sidewalk.