***½/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B+
starring Miriam Hopkins, Jack La Rue, William Gargan, William Collier, Jr.
screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett, from the novel Sanctuary by William Faulkner
directed by Stephen Roberts
by Bryant Frazer In 1933, Paramount Pictures released The Story of Temple Drake, an unusually frank melodrama that depicted a brutal sexual assault and its aftermath, with special attention paid to the reputation of the well-liked party girl named in the title. Released during that brief, free-wheeling period before the industry began enforcing its production code to clamp down on screen sex and violence, The Story of Temple Drake took pains to show how a woman could fall prey to sexual predators through no real fault of her own. It also illustrated in detail her downward psychological spiral, fuelled, in large part, by a well-founded fear of the opprobrium of others. Just last week, in an interview recorded for THE NEW YORK TIMES during Harvey Weinstein's rape trial, reporter Megan Twohey asked the defense lawyer, Donna Rotunno, whether she had ever been sexually assaulted. "I have not," Rotunno answered, "because I would never put myself in that position." Twohey was stunned; the conversation suddenly took on a different tone. Rotunno's response is a textbook example of the ways that privilege blinds people to reality. It must be comforting to believe that you haven't been raped because you're just too darned smart to be raped, but it's also delusional, not to mention hugely condescending to legions of sexual-assault victims who never requested their trauma.
I bring it up here to illustrate how The Story of Temple Drake is genuinely feminist. Like many other pre-Code films, it respects and supports women. It explicitly seeks to decouple a woman's status as a survivor of assault from the social judgment of her actions. And, if Donna Rotunno is any kind of bellwether of widely held tendencies towards victim-blaming (and I wish I had some reason to believe she isn't), it was no fewer than 87 years ahead of its time. Adapted from Sanctuary, a notorious William Faulkner novel so lurid that Faulkner's publisher Harrison Smith rejected the writer's original draft, The Story of Temple Drake is a morality tale that chronicles the flirtatious behaviour of Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins), the daughter of a prominent small-town judge, as she flits among would-be paramours on the local scene. On an especially fateful night, Temple is first seen making out in a roadster with already-drunk boyfriend Toddy Gowan (William Collier Jr.) before a party until she insists, "That's enough. Let's go in."
Inside, she cryptically turns down a proposal from good-guy lawyer Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) before demanding of the already soused Toddy, "Take me somewhere--anywhere." Toddy promises to drive her to Abe Goodwin's place, "a great spot" for a drink. But it's a dark and stormy night, and the old Goodwin house is little more than a ruined plantation mansion with a few seamy bootleggers getting liquored up inside. With Toddy down for the count after he runs the roadster into a fallen tree trunk, Temple finds herself vulnerable among potential creeps and cretins, including a cigarette-chewing big-city gangster Trigger (Jack La Rue) and a charmer named Van (Jim Mason) who wants her to sit on his lap. Abe's son Lee (Irving Pichel), cheerful simpleton Tommy Bassett (James Eagles), and the hilariously cynical Ruby Lemarr (Florence Eldridge, with a perpetual sneer tilted so far up it almost turns upside-down) do what they can to protect her, but the night is long and tense. Just after daybreak, violence erupts--Trigger shoots Tommy dead and rapes Temple brutally.
That scene hits at almost exactly the halfway point of the film; the rest of the picture struggles in good faith with the aftermath of the attack, as a clearly traumatized Temple finds herself falling into Trigger's gangster lifestyle without protest. Meanwhile, back home in Dixon, Benbow is trying to figure out the facts behind the murder of Tommy Bassett, an apparently random crime for which Lee Goodwin is fingered and arrested. Goodwin has been intimidated into silence because he fears Trigger's retribution, so when Temple eventually reappears on the scene, her choice is clear: she can tell the truth about what happened on that night, and subject herself to the requisite shame and character defamation that comes with being a sexual assault victim, or she can remain mum, preserve her reputation, and condemn an innocent man to death. That stark moral choice is pure Hollywood, of course. It's almost a shame that such a primal story has its denouement in staid courtroom drama, although it's also appropriate, as the courtroom has long stood as the Great American Stage where truth and lies, virtue and wickedness, are judged, celebrated, and decried before the people. In Faulkner's scenario, Temple Drake is absolutely corrupt; he gives her no clean exit. The film's insistence on redemption--absolution, even--for Temple may be a cop-out, yet it has a real moral dimension. Temple is by no means complicit in her misfortune, nor is she wholly blameless as her story plays out. The film's legal climax is the most optimistic moment in either version of the tale, as it supposes a good woman can chart an exit from dishonour, if only the people around her will allow that rehabilitation. And so The Story of Temple Drake stands as the story of one woman's immersion in, and maybe emergence from, hell on earth.
While it's nice to be on the right side of history, The Story of Temple Drake has more going for it than just its kindness. Screenwriter Oliver H.P. Garrett had most recently adapted Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms for Frank Borzage, and here he ruthlessly condenses Faulkner's narrative, making it more Hollywood-palatable without compromising the genuinely frightening, decrepit mood of the central sequence at the tumble-down Goodwin homestead--the section of the film that's most redolent of Faulkner's work, with its menacing sense of isolation in the dark heart of the South. (Flash-forward also to the more chaotic but frighteningly similar setting of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a not-entirely-dissimilar American gothic.) Credit is due to director Stephen Roberts, who, making only his third feature film, elicited a headstrong yet delicate performance from Hopkins that effectively conveyed her abject terror as well as the sense of brutish violation at the core of her experience.
Hopkins is more than fine in the film. Rather than playing Temple as an incorrigible flirt early on, she conveys a youthful restlessness and insecurity, registering as a young woman who's unsure what she really wants from her life. But time runs out--the scenes following the attack, where she is seen staring, shell-shocked, into the distance as Trigger insists she drink some coffee, are heartbreaking. Her work is backed up by master cinematographer Karl Struss (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Island of Lost Souls), whose expressionistic bent edges The Story of Temple Drake into full-on horror-film territory, evoking Temple's increasing unease at the looming prospect of violence. And so crucial was the execution of the film's rape sequence to its success--it had to capture the terror of the moment while somehow remaining just mild enough on the studio palate--that Jean Negulesco, at the time a sketch artist and production assistant working for Paramount, was asked to storyboard the scene and to be on hand when it was shot. After examining the drawings, Faulkner later conveyed his thanks to Negulesco for "helping make the story into a moving picture I'm not ashamed of."
It's compelling evidence of how sophisticated Hollywood had become by the 1930s that such close attention was paid to the aesthetic strategies of a film that could have been made as pure exploitation. Despite those efforts, being associated at all with The Story of Temple Drake was seen as risky business. Negulesco's work on the film earned him a reputation as the industry's "rape expert," a dubious distinction that stuck with him longer than he would have liked, per biographer Michelangelo Capua. George Raft refused the role of Trigger despite being under contract at the studio, calling it "screen suicide." The part went instead to La Rue, whose previous credits included mugs, thugs, and henchmen. He looks like trouble from the moment he appears, offering a darker take on Bogart at his gnarliest and bringing a natural sex appeal to the role that only amplifies the unsavoury nature of the character. Paramount suspended Raft, but he may still have gotten the better deal--La Rue's career didn't exactly catch fire, despite the fact that he's great in the role. In the end, officials at the Production Code headquarters were especially disdainful of the filmmakers' skills at stretching the envelope of appropriateness, and The Story of Temple Drake is remembered as one of a handful of pictures that spurred a subsequent crackdown on Code violations. Of course, that code remained in place until 1968--essentially burying The Story of Temple Drake for decades after its initial release. As Hopkins herself lamented, "The Story of Temple Drake is the best picture I ever made. There was talk of reissuing it, but it couldn't get by the censors."
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion's release of The Story of Temple Drake features a new 1.33:1 HD transfer created from a scanned 35mm internegative under the auspices of 20th Century Fox in Hollywood. It's a real pleasure to see a pre-Code picture so well preserved. Dynamics are more than adequate, with deep blacks, fairly bright whites, and ample range in the midtones highlighting the interplay between light and shadow in addition to a touch of Struss's trademark diffusion in the cinematography. The picture is very clean until it's not--some extensive film damage becomes apparent in the darkest scenes, but otherwise dust, scratches, and other distractions are kept to an absolute minimum. Film grain seems to be appropriately encoded, holding up pretty well even under step-frame viewing, reflecting Criterion's generous 36 Mbps bit budget for the feature. The uncompressed (PCM) monaural soundtrack is nearly as impressive. While it's hard to tell what digital wizardry was invoked to clean up the 35mm optical negative source cited in the liner notes, the resulting audio seems to be noise-reduced without completely squelching out the unique characteristics of an optical audio track. There's not much low-frequency information to speak of, but dynamics are solid all around. Gunshots are appropriately loud, automobile motors have a satisfyingly hefty thrum, and I detected little in the way of distortion except when it comes to Hopkins's screams, which are rendered here with the bloodcurdling unpleasantness the material demands.
Special features are somewhat limited in quantity but reflect Criterion's scholarly standards. First up is "Honest Expression: Pre-Code Cinema and The Story of Temple Drake" (14 mins.), in which critic and author Mick LaSalle, whose book titles include Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, weighs in on Hollywood censorship and the movie's place in the pre-Code era and considers the important position of female stars in the late-1920s and early-1930s. LaSalle spends some time discussing differences between the film and Faulkner's novel, including the ways the movie switches the primary point of view from that of Benbow to Temple herself. He's backed by film clips and production stills, historical photography of industry figures such as Production Code heavies Will Hays and Joe Breen, and archival documents. It's dry but informative.
Just when you start to wonder why Criterion couldn't find a woman to discuss some of this, film critic Imogen Sara Smith, author of volumes on film noir and Buster Keaton, shows up with "Pre-Code Powerhouse: Miriam Hopkins and The Story of Temple Drake" (19 mins.) to argue that movies of the time were conflicted about changing social mores. She notes that The Story of Temple Drake declines to judge Temple's behaviour, but calls attention to how it dwells on the small hypocrisies of supporting characters, especially where liquor is concerned. She celebrates elements of Hopkins's performance and analyzes the ways the film's tense, frightening midsection demonstrates its sympathy for her character as well as its awareness of the predatory nature of the men around her.
Finally, in "Casting a Shadow" (18 mins.), cinematographer John Bailey, ASC, and AMPAS librarian Matt Severson talk aesthetics while delving into the Academy archives on the film. We get a close look at those extraordinary Negulesco storyboards (which are by no means limited to depicting the rape scene). Bailey compares them to German woodcuts, invoking the work of artist Käthe Kollwitz. Expanding on The Story of Temple Drake's cinematography, Bailey brings Struss's early New York cityscapes into the picture, comparing their shadowy qualities to Struss's film work, and discusses the particular qualities of extreme close-ups in expressionist cinema. Also referred to are production stills from Sunrise, scenes from the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and documents from the Production Code office. If anything, this program is too short; I'd happily spend another 20 minutes or more listening to Bailey go on about light, shadow, and German expressionism.
Inside the box, a fold-out booklet features "Notorious," an essay by Geoffrey O'Brien that performs a fairly close reading of important elements of the film, comparing it to the source material, attempting to identify the film's key themes and attitudes, and wondering how Temple's friends and neighbours might regard her after the picture's unspooled. O'Brien is quite knowledgeable about the circumstances of The Story of Temple Drake's making, and he has a poet's way with words. His piece is flanked by the usual Criterion liner notes, along with an intriguing assortment of original advertising elements created by Paramount that show how the studio threaded the promotional needle at the time. One of them promises, "Women will understand."
71 minutes; Not Rated; 1.33:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English LPCM 1.0; English subtitles; BD-50; Region A; Criterion