As the title card comes up, the movie has already begun, with a frontal view of a dilapidated plantation house, its ivied columns sporadically lit up by a raging storm. Spectators at the time of the film’s release who were familiar with the source novel would have recognized the ominous dwelling as the “gutted ruin rising gaunt and stark out of a grove of unpruned cedar trees . . . known as the Old Frenchman place.” But any moviegoer could have linked it to recent terrors of the screen: an old, dark house just like in The Old Dark House, a residence whose shuttered seclusion might conjure The Most Dangerous Game or Island of Lost Souls. A warning is posted at the outset: be prepared for something very bad to happen here.
The keynote is dread, and anyone paying to see The Story of Temple Drake in 1933 would likely have gotten the message, by hearsay or by advertising that promised a picture “suitable for adult minds only,” that the horrors in store were sexual in nature, straight from the pages of the “novel by William Faulkner” that the credits refrained (at the Hays Office’s insistence) from identifying by name. Sanctuary (1931)—or, as writer Lamar Trotti described it at the time, “probably the most sickening novel ever written in this country”—had given Faulkner the notoriety his previous masterpieces The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying failed to achieve. He would later assert that the book was commercially calculated—“I . . . speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought was the right answer, and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine”—a disclaimer to be regarded with the utmost skepticism.
Nothing about Sanctuary suggests artistic indifference. Faulkner—clearly savoring the outrageousness of what he is permitting himself—could not have more deliberately undermined the myths surrounding southern gentility and white female virtue. A veneer of aristocratic tradition barely disguises a morass of corruption, resentment, and violence permeating upper and lower reaches alike, from county courthouse to bootleggers’ den to Memphis bordello; no potential sanctuary is left untainted. All this is conveyed in a tone both brutal and grotesquely comic, and Faulkner’s mediumistic capacity to drift in and out of different characters’ inner states imparts eerie fluidity to the spiraling nightmare. The challenges of Faulkner’s circuitous storytelling—with the most shocking plot points needing to be teased out by the astute reader—did not prevent Sanctuary from becoming a best seller, nor deter Paramount from buying the rights despite obvious obstacles to its screen adaptation.
Doubtless only a small portion of spectators had actually read the novel, but its central story was sensational enough to have spread by word of mouth. It might easily have been pared down in the telling to the form of a classic pornographic fantasy, a dirty joke inflected by social rancor: a self-indulgent upper-class tease gets her comeuppance when she is raped by a thuggish gangster, and learns to like it. Many of the most indelible details clearly could never be filmed: that the gangster, Popeye (renamed Trigger in the movie), syphilitic and mentally stunted, was impotent and that the rape was effected with a corncob, or that Temple, adrift in a traumatized alcoholic daze, would be induced to have sex with another man while Popeye watched. Nor was it likely that Temple would be shown finally giving false testimony that would consign an innocent man to a lynch mob. (All that, and much else, would be duly left out, although at a crucial moment some strategically placed corncobs in the corner of the frame deliver a knowing wink to the initiated.)
“The team of filmmakers achieved a Faulknerian ambience such as few films have managed, while adding their own sharp observations and satiric touches.”
“If the film had not been taken out of circulation, this extended sequence would doubtless have long since been acknowledged as a peak of early-thirties filmmaking.”
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