William Faulkner dismissed Sanctuary, the novel this movie was based on, as a mere potboiler. But even Faulkner’s trash is pretty high-class, so there’s compassion as well as passion in his portrait of a bored Southern belle in the age of prohibition who plays with fire and gets charred to a crisp.
The screenplay sands off a lot of Faulkner’s rough edges—impotence, voyeurism, world-weary ending—while adding a romance between Temple and the idealistic lawyer who represents her. Southern types Faulkner knew better than to condescend to, like a simple-minded farmhand and the black servants who comment on their white employers from the sidelines, edge into stereotype in the film, and the courtroom scenes that start and end it are pretty hokey.
But there’s still plenty of grit in this salty little oyster, like the moll who puts her baby to bed in a box “so the rats don’t get it” and the bootlegger who makes Temple his sex slave, turning her out with a rape in the barn where she’s huddled for a night, far from home with her society date passed out inside. And there’s Miriam Hopkins’a fierce starring performance, which cuts right through the smoke thrown up by Hollywood’s fog machine. Hopkins, a Georgia peach who always seemed to know a thing or two about flirtation and frustration and steel-magnolia spine, gives a nuanced, almost naturalistic performance while others around her—most notably the greasily handsome Jack LaRue, who plays her rapist, who is often photographed in lingering, leering closeups—tend to favor the exaggerated, near-pantomime style that was popular in silent movies and early talkies.
The subtly but clearly conveyed moods Hopkins cycles through, from coquettish confidence to panicky fear to near-catatonic withdrawal the morning after her rape and then a ballsy bravado that can’t quite conceal a deep reservoir of shame, make Temple a highly sympathetic bad girl. That—and the happy ending that saw her rewarded for her guts rather than punished for her fall—may explain why the Hays Code, which was just hitting its stride when The Story of Temple Drake was released, came down on it so hard.
As MoMA’s Katie Trainor explains, the Hays office gave the film its most restrictive ruling, which meant it was withdrawn after just a few screenings with no chance for re-release. Not until 2010, when MoMA screened a vintage print obtained from TCM, did it get the kind of showing Karl Struss’s creamily gorgeous noir cinematography deserves, and it still doesn’t show up much outside of the somewhat smudged and streaky version on YouTube.
The contrast between the harshness of the world Temple falls into and Struss’s elegantly framed and lit shots, Hopkins’ flawless hair and makeup and satiny gowns, and the rest of the film’s glossy surface creates a delicious tension in scenes like that one in the barn. As Temple cowers photogenically in a corner, her unseen rapist silently climbs toward her, ascending a ladder whose rungs echo the slats of noir light angling through gaps in the walls.
They don’t make ‘em like that any more.