The film establishes Temple (played by the great Miriam Hopkins) early on as a wealthy, featherbrained college girl who would rather jump around from one man to the next than settle down with anyone in particular. At the film's beginning she leaves a party with a reckless drunken college kid who takes her to an eerie backwoods bootlegging operation to satisfy his craving for a drink.
These early scenes at the house owned by bootlegger Lee Goodman are when the movie is at its best. Temple has entered a living hell of sorts, a world completely devoid of the comforts and securities she had in the city. Cinematographer Karl Struss, a master at creating surreal, haunting images (he photographed movies like Sunrise, Island of Lost Souls, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), uses minimal light to create a world of shadows and creepy faces and hideous dread. Particularly intimidating is Trigger (Jack La Rue), who, with his black suit and hat and hard, chiseled face might be the devil incarnate in this hellhole.
At this point we're fast approaching the pivotal moment in the story, one that made the novel infamous despite not actually being described, and that is similarly only implied in the film. It is of course, if you're at all familiar with the story, the rape of Temple with a corncob by the impotent Shooter. However, while I was watching the film, a shot of Temple just prior to this off-screen nightmare reminded me of a similar shot used in last year's great The Immigrant. Take a look at the two:
In the former image, Temple has just woken up in the barn after her first night at Lee Goodman's place, hence the streaks of light passing through the cracks in the wood. The image of Marion Cotillard's Ewa from The Immigrant has similar beams of light streaked across her face. The difference is that the shot of Ewa takes place just after she has prostituted herself in order to get money to help her sister. Temple, on the other hand, is still pure, having been subjected to real terrors the night before but as of yet still free from actual physical violation. Why then do I bring up these two shots when they don't really share much in common except for some rays of morning light? Because when I thought about the two images and the women who inhabit them, I started to feel that these characters actually share a little something in common.
First off, these are two women coming from places of contentment (as we see in the dream sequence in The Immigrant, Ewa seemed to lead a very peaceful existence in Poland, at least for a time) who are thrown into foreign and terrifying situations and fall into prostitution at the hands of strong and powerful men. One reason why Ewa manages this is because on the ship to America men would force themselves onto her. Her mortification over this fact is part of the reason why she is able to give her body to men later in the film. She has less to lose since she has already lost her purity, plus her sister's well-being seems to be more important to her than her own. Temple, as already stated, is coming from a wealthy, shallow lifestyle, and in the film we see that after her rape, she runs off with Shooter to be a prostitute in Memphis. Her motives for this may ultimately be altered somewhat from the novel, but I think they are still to an extent applicable. Here's what I had to say about it in an excerpt from the paper I wrote on Sanctuary a few weeks ago, in which I suggest Temple's venture into evil and prostitution are an escape from a different problematic world she previously inhabited:
This leads to what is arguably the most challenging question in the novel, namely whether Temple’s actions following her stay at Frenchman’s Bend are meant to suggest that she has now adopted an evil nature or whether she is still ultimately a good person who is compelled for a variety of reasons to inhabit an evil persona. Ultimately, it seems pretty clear that Temple is remaining with Popeye and taking part in reprehensible behavior out of necessity while at the same time trying to avoid the society she grew up in. Temple has realized the dark ways of the world, and thus she seems to understand something artificial and trivial about her existence prior to arriving at Frenchman’s Bend. After moving to Memphis with Popeye, it would seem that Temple is not so much in love with evil but resisting her old life. “The fatal adaptability, the “social sense,” these are the things that paralyze any impulse on Temple’s part to flee the scene or to resist the evil.” In retrospect it almost seems as if Faulkner has been driving towards this notion the entire time. Consider, for example, Ruby’s chastisement of Temple and her way of life soon after her arrival at Frenchman’s Place: ‘“Oh, I know your sort, honest women. Too good to have anything to do with common people. Let a man so much as look at you and you faint away because your father the judge and your four brothers might not like it.'" Faulkner seems to suggest that this guarded, sheltered existence of Temple’s is a problem just like the other end of the spectrum—Frenchman’s Bend—is a problem. And the problem does not just relate to the young social scene that Temple was a part of, but to the society in general. It is a society that puts norms over any care for ethics and truth. One of Benbow’s opponents in the murder is his sister, who does not “see that it makes any difference who did it." She is more concerned with what other people will think of her brother for taking up a controversial case, and she positions this worry over any real care for justice. In Temple’s case, rather than suggesting that it is an improvement that she is now living in a brothel in Memphis, Faulkner seems to be implying that it is a logical result of her realization of the weakness of her former life. She would perhaps prefer a different situation all together (evident by the fact that she imagines other realities for herself, such as becoming a boy, an older teacher, or even a corpse), yet by staying with Popeye she knows she has security while also freedom from the society that now disenchants her. “Temple has ventured into the terror of the unknown and she has accepted its violence completely. She has taken the worst that the world offers and she has found it sufficient and somehow acceptable.” It is her new sanctuary.
Now I know that there are all sorts of levels where this comparison falls apart. I know Ewa is trying to get back to at least the contentment of her previous life, while Temple's motive for this wild venture in Memphis is to escape the world she once knew. And I know that Ewa's ends are primarily moral while Temple's are largely amoral. And yet in both cases we still have strong examples of female characters taking control of a situation for reasons that are ultimately unselfish and for some sort of greater good. I strongly advise seeing The Immigrant, which was my favorite movie of last year. I can't quite recommend The Story of Temple Drake except that it's a good example of the boldness of pre-Hays Code Hollywood storytelling. Any themes I'm gathering from it are largely a reflection of those found in Faulkner's novel, and without having read it there would be little insights to get from its stripped down adaptation. So, watch The Immigrant a bunch of times, and between viewings read Sanctuary.