Bright Lights Film Journal


I wrote the description below back in 2009 (full review here) based on a rare screening years before at the Film Forum pre-code festival. It used to be so very rare, but tonight on TCM that all changes, so set your DVRs!

———-(From Acidemic 1/23/09)

Faulkner’s dank Gothic ambiance suffuses DRAKE (it’s based on his novella, “Sanctuary”), lending literary heft to its “Old Dark Hothouse”-style creepiness and avant garde “dream theater” alienation effects. Think Polanski’s REPULSION crossed with James Whale’s OLD DARK HOUSE and Kazan’s BABY DOLL, all filtered through a Federal Theater Project-style dream modernism lens until the Lynchianism begins to seep from the edges like a creeping, tasty fungus.

Hopkins is Temple Drake, the pleasure-seeking debutante granddaughter of a respected southern Judge (her dad was killed in “the World War”). Her date for a country club party gets drunk and crashes the car near an old creepy house in the woods. Bootlegging white trash Irving Pichel and his wife, Ruby (Florence Eldridge), live there, with the requisite Faulknerian “idiot manchild,” Tommy (James Eagles), and their baby (Ruby keeps it in a box so “the rats don’t get it”). Staying at the house, playing cards til the storm stops, are some creepy gangsters from the city, including the greasy and virile Trigger (Jack La Rue). The moment Drake’s eyes lock with Trigger’s, it’s on. Her pure breeding can never suppress the animal attraction for this oily, leering mutt, no matter how hard it tries. Trigger takes this as his excuse to take what he wants, regardless of her screaming and terror. A candle in his hand supplies the phallic violation/authority symbolism. When the manchild steps in, Trigger presses his namesake and the kid goes down. Before then, every guy hits on her, even Pichel who slaps his wife when she intervenes. The presence of the baby meanwhile is a sad reminder of just where Temple’s headed: its helplessness mirrors hers own (she too wants protection from the rats) and also shows the end game of Sex’s genetic con job, with baby as the ultimate tool of repression, imprisoning Ruby to a life of squalor more effectively than any bars or chains… and now Trigger wants to plant one in our virgin Temple.

Meanwhile the handsome hero, Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) is the people’s attorney fighting for truth in a court system where judges like Temple’s grandfather (Sir Guy Standing) think it’s better to hang innocent poor people than tarnish the reputation of any of the local landed gentry. Naturally the shooting of the manchild becomes a case that ends up in court, with Pichel on trial and too scared of Trigger to tell the truth. His innocence rests with Temple’s confession of just where she was that night, but if she tells the truth–no matter how involuntary her initiation into the Ways of Man may have been–her reputation will be ruined.

The middle segment of the film,–the long dark and stormy night at the creepy old bootlegger’s leading up to the rape–is a low/high in pre-code sleaze: Fascinatingly lurid, it’s also slow, cheap and out-of-control. Shots alternate endlessly between close-ups of leering male faces; her passed-out date, with bugs crawling on him, and Drake, trembling as she stares off camera in horror/fascination. The budget seems to rise and fall with Temple’s every terrified breath, and shots are clearly spliced together from several different prints. Probably some honorable film restorer found a few lost reels floating around in the deep storage vaults and spliced the undamaged parts and restored cut material.

Rape or not, from a Freudian-Lacanian model, this is pure myth, woman’s initial encounter with the traumatic “real” dimension of fantasmatic enjoyment, and one is instantly reminded of similar “locales” in the Lynch universe: Dean Stockwell’s house in BLUE VELVET; One-Eyed Jack’s in TWIN PEAKS; the sleazy porn guy’s pad in LOST HIGHWAY, and so on. These places aren’t just dirty or obscene, they are soo obscene they create a sort of feedback loop of obscenity, opening a trans-dimensional gateway, where juvenile fantasy finds its traumatic expression in “ugly” reality. The deliberately exaggerated, stilted, somnambulistic and theatrical manner in which the actors speak and move might be construed as bad theater but in the context of the era was probably a deliberate distancing effect, to equate the sequence more with dreams than reality (i.e. Lynch’s room with the dancing dwarf where everyone talks backwards), and thus spare the viewer from taking it all too seriously and going home traumatized (for viewers of that era, this was probably the equivalent of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE). The constant cutting to Drake’s horrified reactions smacks of cheap exploitation after awhile (it’s an old editing trick to cover up mismatched footage) but as a result they conjure up the pungent aftertaste of those old Dwain Esper road show pictures like MANIAC, or our associations of bad video dupes and poverty row dinginess with sleazy violence… and we get a real sense of Temple’s feeling completely trapped in this squalor, as we remember feeling trapped in our parent’s houses as kids, watching these old movies on video over and over to pass the time, anxious to escape the tedium of suburbia, yet terrified by the wildness waiting in the big city.

The closer Temple gets to her violent deflowering, the slower time moves and the more dreamlike it all becomes. Long close-ups of Trigger’s face–his eyes glowering and never blinking, huge cigarette in the corner of his mouth–begin to resemble an Easter Island fertility demon; his oily sweat like rain, or worse. Meanwhile her male escort’s drunken uselessness in the situation carries a NIGHT OF THE HUNTER vibe, as when little John Harper tries to wake the old drunk at the dock who usually helps him, while Mitchum closes in singing his infernal songs. Instead of Mitchum closing in it’s La Rue, and as it’s a woman’s sexual awakening story (I’m thinking also of Laura Dern in SMOOTH TALK [1985]), we’re in danger of being lured into a trance of commingled fear and desire instead of just fear for survival. This time we’re dealing with the trauma of transmutation, by which so many girls survive after their families are killed by invading tribes. Instead of killing or overcoming through combat or trickery, these girls survive by Stockholm Syndrome. It’s all written so deep in their basic reptilian cortex programming they don’t even recognize it when it comes slithering up from the depths. (cont)