This overheated melodrama stands as a classic example of Hollywood’s offensive attitudes to women. Nobel prize-winning author William Faulkner could hardly blame the movies for sensationalising his misogynistic source material since if anything the movie took a softer line. Told primarily in flashback as headstrong southern belle Temple Drake (Lee Remick) attempts to mitigate the death sentence passed on her maid Nancy (Odetta). Given that such appeals are directed at Drake’s Governor father (Howard St John), and that the maid has been condemned for murdering Drake’s infant child, that’s a whole lot of story to swallow.
Worse is to follow. Drake takes up with Prohibition bootlegger Candy Man (Yves Montand) after being raped by him and thereafter appears happy to live with him in a New Orleans brothel – the “sanctuary,” no irony intended, of the title – despite him slapping her around. The film steers clear of turning her into the prostitute of the original book, but pretty much sets up the notion that high class women will fall for a low-class tough guy whose virility is demonstrated by his brutality. In other words a “real man” rather than the dilettantes she has previously rejected.
After the Candy Man dies, Drake returns home and marries wealthy suitor Gowan Stevens (Bradford Dillman) who blames himself, rightly, for Drake falling into the clutches of the gangster in the first place. But a past threatening to engulf her precipitates the infanticide.
Faulkner was a Hollywood insider, adapting Sanctuary for The Story of Temple Drake (1933) and earning high praise for his work on Bogart vehicles To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). The success of The Tarnished Angels (1957) starring Rock Hudson, The Long, Hot Summer (1958) with Paul Newman and The Sound and the Fury (1959) headlined by Yul Brynner had sent his cachet rocketing. But all three were directed by Americans – Douglas Sirk and Martin Ritt – who had a distinctive visual style and an ear for what made melodrama work.
Sanctuary had been handed to British director Tony Richardson (Look Back in Anger, 1959) and he didn’t quite understand how to make the best of the difficult project. So while Lee Remick manages to suggest both strength and fragility, and makes her character’s wanton despair believable, Yves Montand is miscast and Bradford Dillman fails to convince even though portraying a weak character. Too many of the smaller roles appear as cliches. And it’s hard to believe the maid’s motivation in turning murderer. Watch out for Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke, 1967).
What was acceptable steamy melodrama in the 1930s fails to click three decades on. Faulkner’s thesis that high-falutin’ women want a man to master them and furthermore will fall in love with their rapist seems to lack any understanding of the female mind and will not appeal any more to the modern sensibility than it did on release. Lee Remick is what holds the picture together, in part because she plays so well the role of a woman embracing degradation, and refusing – no matter how insane the idea appears – to let go of the man she believes is the love of her life. It’s not Fifty Shades of Grey, but it’s not that far off that kind of fantasy figure, and given the success of that book, it’s entirely possible there is a market for what Faulkner has to peddle.
Not easy to find. This is actually on YouTube if you go onto that channel and search. Strangely enough, if I post a link, it says it is no longer playing there – but just as strangely if you go looking you will find it.