Roger Corman is fond of saying that only one of his movies ever lost money. It was this 1962 release (shot in 1961), and it is his bravest film, and still arguably his most powerful. William Shatner plays Adam Cramer, a white supremacist associated with the “Patrick Henry Society” (read: John Birch Society), who arrives in the southern town of Caxton on the eve of racial integration of the school. The demagogue whips up the hatred of the white townspeople, leading to cross-burning, church-bombing, and worse.
Corman’s film has lost none of its power to shock and appal. Nor has it lost its power to amaze. An absolutely blistering condemnation of bigotry, it makes the likes of Mississippi Burning look mealy-mouthed by comparison, and its unblinking political directness is all the more astounding for when and where it was made. As we learn from the accompanying featurette, the cast and crew operated under the constant threat of violence, and the sort of events they were depicting were actually taking place nearby. One of the first cinematic statements on the struggle for civil rights, it is still hard to find another film as raw and as uncompromised as this. And those whose only impression of William Shatner is of a shameless ham are in for a revelation. His performance is a satanic mixture of charm, smarm, self-love and seething, explosive hatred. He incarnates a textbook definition of “evil charisma.”
The soundtrack is the original mono. A stereo remix wouldn’t have made much sense, especially given how low-budget the film was. The track is acceptable, but with plenty of rough edges. The dialogue is fine (every epithet coming through with terrible clarity) though there is a bit of buzz. Quite noticeable hiss is also present in some scenes.
So we’re dealing with another example of a Roger Corman “Special Edition” here, which means it is less special than 99% of DVDs that don’t make that claim. The picture is a case in point. Though the theatrical release was, as far as I can learn, presented in 1.85:1, the image here is fullscreen. The print is also far from perfect. Scratches and dirt, sometimes quite bad, come and go, and there’s even the occasional splice. The black-and-white tones are nice though, with strong contrasts, and the grain is held to a minimum.
I’m sorry, but a nine-minute retrospective featurette does not a special edition make. The memories of Corman and Shatner are fascinating, but just enough to whet one’s appetite. If ever a Corman film cried out for a director’s commentary, this is it.
This blistering, difficult but important film deserves a much better DVD release than this. But this is what we have, so we’ll have to make do.