The Story of Temple Drake was adapted from a contemporary William Faulkner novel called Sanctuary. It’s putting it lightly to say it was the subject of controversy — even in the Pre-Code film era — but part of what the film version gives us is this instant sense of Southern Gothic environs.
It’s as much about atmosphere and the salacious nature of the material — leaning into what we might easily term Pre-Code sensibilities. But with such a film like Temple Drake where its reputation precedes it, it behooves audiences to consider what it is actually putting across.
Some studios might have been keen on peddling titillating smut or at least just enough sensuality to get a rise out of the paying public — to make it worth their while so to speak. But even a story like this, which might seem to have such a cut-and-dry trajectory, actually offers up something a bit more involving when we consider the evolution of our heroine and what she must come to terms with.
Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) is a girl about town, and she really does get around. She’s the sought-after debutante at the ball with her pick of all the eligible young bachelors. She can dance with them, toy with them, and there’s no consequence to it. It’s merely a game and seeing as her grandfather is a prominent Judge (Guy Standing), he does his utmost to make sure she is sheltered and well-taken care of. She’s never had to worry about anything in her life.
Aside from her come-hither reputation, playful romance is often denoted visually through the hands. If you’ll pardon the unforgivable phrasing, they become a kind of shorthand for the broader passion. They can be playful, alive, yet elusive. It’s put succinctly by how Temple can fire a man up. Then poof! She’s gone.
On one such evening, her late-night companion is a soused playboy. They leave the party behind and go blazing down the roadways at madcap rates only to have a dramatic spill and tumble out of their car. The crash itself is hardly a drop in the bucket to them. It’s what happens thereafter that rattles them both.
There’s something uneasy about where the story is going. Unrest is in the air. Lightning shakes the foundations of the film. They get taken in by some shady characters holding out in a rundown house. The thugs lurking about are a lecherous breed, the most menacing of the bunch is a man named Trigger (Jack La Rue).
Suddenly, life is no longer a lark. They’ve run into a harrowing life or death reality as Temple is subjected to a prison of terror and ruination, hopelessly trapped and vulnerable. So quickly she goes from the frisky huntress to the victimized prey. It’s true she’s entered an entirely different world where all the harmless frivolity is quickly replaced with the kind of contentiousness and fear she’s never experienced in her life. This is how real people live: rough and hard.
The barn where she seeks refuge for an uneasy night away from the prying eyes of men is a bit like the lion’s den, but there is no one to deliver her when the beast comes prowling around. After she is roughed up and attacked, she enters into an almost catatonic state of trauma and survivor’s guilt.
Her Grandpa can’t protect her anymore and the only man who is willing to fight for her is the one admirer, who’s not disappeared: Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) is an up-and-coming lawyer who once had aspirations to marry Temple. She always rebuffed him as a kindness. She thinks he’s too good for her.
But in a crucial moment, she protects him. In fact, she does something almost decent, sacrificial even, making herself look all the more the tramp. Pretending to scorn her good friend for the thick-headed thug, she even sells it by planting a kiss on the man’s lips. Even he’s got himself believing it. After all he’s done to her, in some sick demented way, she must actually want him.
It couldn’t be further from the truth. In a single moment, she finds his gun deposited on the bed and lashes out to defend herself. It’s carried out with some crucial closeups punctuating one of the film’s most emphatic developments. It’s also empathetic as we grow to sympathize all the more with our heroine’s terrifying position.
But her work is not done. Stephen, always the honorable one, beseeches her to testify on behalf of the man he is defending from murder. Only they know what really happened. However, this is such a deep wound. She must come clean with her deepest, darkest shame in a public forum all but prepared to ostracize her for a scandal that she wanted no part of. The movie’s pitting the life of a man against the sullied reputation of Temple. It’s her “duty before God.”
As the story goes out with this kind of optimistic glimmer of redemption, resurging against all the darkness we have already witnessed, it’s hard not to consider the significance of the name Temple. With the evocation of God, it feels like a kind of spiritual allegory is in order. Each of us with the desires of our hearts — with our wants, time, resources, and actions, create alters to something.
We always hear it told that our bodies are temples, and it’s no different here. We all worship something. However, when our lives get shaken up, it makes us take stock of our priorities and consider what we look venerate and celebrate in our lives.
Fluttering behind her eyes Miriam Hopkins does her best to dance between jovial gaiety, subsequent terror, and this kind of resting despondency flooding over her when she is finally taken advantage of. It changes her. In an earlier scene, she makes a passing comment about how “It’s like there are two of me.”
How right this proves to be, and it’s not so much like Jekyll and Hyde. It evolves into this schism between her personage before and after this event. Temple can never be the same again. Of course, that doesn’t mean she’s irredeemable or totally befouled. Far from it. Restoration is available to all even someone traumatized in the worst manner possible like Temple Drake. Because each one of us can be a Temple.