Pre-code Hollywood was frank about sex, and women were more than appendages to male heroics. Though the male gaze ensured these dames were hot and not just adventurous.
While the Paramount adaptation of William Faulkner’s trash novel ‘Sanctuary’ took a while to get made, when it hit the screen the studio didn’t cut corners nor dolly things up. The Story of Temple Drake is all of 71 minutes and not surprisingly coherent story-telling is a casualty, yet the lurid plot is handled with a compelling economy and frankness, strongly abetted by the suitably dark lensing of Karl Struss, whose expressionist lighting of horrendous close-ups insinuates a decadent menace into the melodrama.
Temple Drake is a cheap little rich-girl from the South, who likes slumming with drunken lechers driving fast cars. One night she comes a cropper when her latest partner in sleaze crashes his roadster. After seeking help at a decrepit mansion they are abducted by a sinister gang of bootleggers. The drunken beau is dumped, the girl raped, and then shanghaied to a bordello. Is she a willing accomplice to her degradation? The scenario is ambivalent and you have to live with your doubts.
Wide-eyed and gorgeous, a not so young Miriam Hopkins brings a simmering sexuality to her portrayal of a woman whose lurid appetites are kept in check by a veneer of respectability – and a genuine awareness of her tendency to self-destruct. For all her baseness, she has a moral centre that only needs to be coerced into action. Trouble is on both occasions she aids her own demise. First by killing, and then into making an admission of guilt that has severe consequences.
While Temple Drake is no femme-fatale and her actions are reactive, she cannily prefigures those hard dames that were let loose less than a decade later.
This notorious pre-coder is essential viewing.