Born in Montreal, Quebec, in 1931, William Shatner, over the course of the last nine decades, has managed to carve out for himself a reputation that surely borders on the legendary. Whether playing the youngest captain in Star Fleet history, a cop, a lawyer, or any of the other dozens of roles he has essayed over the years, Shatner has always been one of the most entertaining of all actors to watch, no matter if he is playing it straight or engaging in some of his well-loved overemoting. And, the man has succeeded in pulling off the double hat trick – plus two – of having appeared in no fewer than eight of my favorite television shows of the 1960s: Route 66, The Fugitive, Thriller, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible, and, of course, Star Trek. In today’s Shocktober column, I would like to shine a spotlight on two films that Shatner appeared in both shortly before and shortly after his turn as Captain James Tiberius Kirk. The first of the two, The Intruder, to be perfectly honest, is hardly anyone’s idea of a horror picture, although the character that Shatner portrays in the film, a white supremacist/rabid segregationist, is surely some kind of a terrible monster. In the second, Shatner’s turn as a serial killer might prove stunning for those of you who have always pictured the beloved actor as “the good guy.” And need I even mention that both of these films might prove perfect viewing fare for this Halloween season?
Roger Corman’s The Intruder may prove something of a revelation for those viewers who are used to thinking of William Shatner as nothing more than a self-parodying, space-trucking blowhard. Shatner is simply superb in this picture, and gives one of the finest performances I have ever seen him essay. His Adam Cramer, when we first see him, appears to be a polite, well-mannered and chivalrous gentleman. One would never know that, as a representative of the Patrick Henry Society, he has come to the small Southern town of Caxton to stir up riots against the new school integration laws. His Cramer has loads of snake-oil charm, is a mesmerizing orator and is suavely seductive with the ladies; no wonder that he soon has Caxton eating out of his slimy hands. Five years before he ever sat in the captain’s chair, Shatner is truly a wonder to behold here, and his ranting speech before the Caxton courthouse may be the finest work of his career; better, even, than those final two minutes of “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Trekkers may perhaps understand me when I say that his Adam Cramer is hardly an “E Plebnista” performance! The film’s other three professional actors are also very fine, and indeed, even the large cast of nonactors seems very authentic. Though set in the Deep South, Corman (who directs extremely imaginatively here, by the way) has since revealed that the picture was actually filmed in Mississippi County, Missouri (to avoid trouble with locals, although that trouble came anyway), and that, typical for this director, the film was shot in only three weeks and for the price of only $80,000. Despite that, the film seems very well made. It is, famously, the only picture of Corman’s that ever lost money, but nevertheless carries an emotional charge and important message almost five decades later. And Shatner, in his first starring role, an Oscar-worthy one, is largely responsible for that charge. This is a great film.
In the past, the two William Shatner movies that I’ve trotted out to demonstrate what an effective actor he can be are The Intruder (1962), in which, as mentioned above, he plays a white supremacist, and the otherworldly Incubus (1966), the only film ever made in Esperanto. Hoping for another Shatner “I” film to add to this arsenal, I threw Impulse (1974) into the ol’ DVD player, but I’m afraid I’ve gone to the well once too often, as this picture finds everyone’s favorite spacetrucker in full blowhard mode, overemoting with a vengeance and giving full rein to his trademarked “Shatnerian” acting tics. Here, Shat plays Matt Stone, who we first meet as a young boy in the act of killing his mother’s lover, a la Norman Bates. Flash forward 30 years, and Matt has grown into a handsome, smooth-talking con artist with an unfortunate tendency to murder his lady friends in a frothing rage. In this film, a mature but still attractive Ruth Roman, as well as a mother-and-daughter household, come into Matt’s/Shat’s sphere of influence. In the picture’s action highlight, an old acquaintance of Stone’s, played by a pipe-smoking, badly dubbed Harold “Oddjob” Sakata, has a mano a mano with our seedy psycho inside a deserted car wash. I know this all sounds pretty cool to read about, but trust me, the film is often dull and something of a labor to sit through. Only those with a deep and abiding love of Shatner in full “E Plebnista” histrionic mode (and indeed, his Matt Stone will often remind many of the evil Capt. Kirk from the old “Enemy Within” episode, right down to the scratches on his face!) should sign on here. I must admit that Bill is always fun to watch, even when sporting some truly awful ’70s fashions, as he does here (dig that red trousers and tank top combo!), at the same time owning that this film is a hopelessly muddled affair. I’m giving it 2½ stars because Shatner is so fascinating for me to look at when he overdoes it, but those with zero tolerance for his thesping charms will have a tough time here. To quote one of his old commercials, “Promise.”
Anyway, folks, I sure do hope you all get a chance to see these films one day this season … especially the first, which I found to be some kind of revelation as regards Mr. Shatner’s thespian possibilities. Sad to say, The Intruder is just as relevant today as it was when first made over 60 years ago. Talk about scary!