INTRUDER IN THE DUST . MGM, 1949. David Brian, Claude Jarman Jr, Juano Hernandez,. Porter Hall, Charles Kemper, Will Geer, and Elizabeth Patterson. Screenplay by Ben Maddow, from the novel by William Faulkner. Directed by Clarence Brown.

   As much a mystery/suspense movie as a social-problem film, and excellent on both counts.

   Intruder opens with Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez) arrested for the murder of Vinson Gowrie — he was found standing over Gowrie’s body with a recently-fired pistol in his pocket—and the locals, egged on by Gowrie’s brother Crawford (Charles Kemper) feel it their civic duty to skip the formality of a trial, stalled only by the absence of Gowrie’s father (Porter Hall.)

   Enter Chick Mallison (Claude Jarman Jr) a spectator in the crowd who knows something of the aloof “uppity” Beauchamp, believes him innocent, and enlists his older-and-wiser attorney uncle (David Brian) to defend him in Court. If he ever gets there.

   Sounds like To Kill a Mockingbird before its time, but the characters surprised me: Juano Hernandez’ Beauchamp is remote and uncooperative. Porter Hall , who at various times in his career murdered The Thin Man, shot Will Bill Hickok, locked up Kris Kringle, and marooned Tab Hunter, is quite sympathetic here, while David Brian’s wise-looking lawyer is only slightly less benighted than the noose-swinging locals — he doesn’t wait to hear Beauchamp’s story, just wants to plead him Guilty, and has no intention of getting in the way of any lynch mob.

   BUT THEN….There’s a marvelous moment in Brian’s office, where Jarman interrupts his conference with a meek little old lady (Elizabeth Patterson, being sued for running over a chicken) and Brian rails about the impossibility of Beauchamp’s case. “Why did he have to murder a Gowrie? And if he did, why did he have to shoot him in the back?” Whereupon Patterson pipes up softly but firmly “Maybe he didn’t.”

   At which point the whole tone of the piece shifts. Patterson (who was also in The Story of Temple Drake) takes over the investigation, blockades the Jail and… and other stuff I won’t spoil for you. Suffice it to way she’s a tough and smart in her own way as Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple.

   I think this character was deliberately brought on quietly and allowed to grow, as do some others, making this a film that reminded me of Chandler’s dictum: The crime itself is less important than its effect on the characters. Or in this case, the effect of the characters upon the crime.

   Make no mistake. This is a Mystery Movie, albeit a fairly obvious one. Bodies get buried, moved, and dug up again, clues get gathered, and toward the end, Will Geer’s canny sheriff has a tense stand-off with a hidden killer.

   We also get some quietly pungent displays of passive racism, as when Jarman’s dad shrugs off a lynching with, “These things happen. And people like us do not get involved.” but scenarist Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle, God’s Little Acre, etc) keeps the lesson implicit, and never preaches what he can show.

   So we get a good mystery here, and a thoughtful one. Mostly though we get to see human beings acting like people we know. And this is what makes Intruder in the Dust a film to treasure.