Sunday, 11 March 2018

Movie Review: Sanctuary (1961)

A steamy drama dealing with all manners of shocking behavior from rape and abuse to illicit love and murder, Sanctuary conjures up a thick but lumpy brew.

It's 1928 in the deep south of Mississippi, and Nancy (Odetta), a black housekeeper, is sentenced to death for murdering the infant son of her employers Temple and Gowan Stevens (Lee Remick and Bradford Dillman). Nancy seems content and accepting of her fate. On the day before the execution, Temple rushes to her father Governor Drake (Howard St. John) to appeal for a pardon. She recounts her story in flashback.

Six years prior, Temple was a young woman flirting with Gowan. He takes her out on a drunken joy ride to the backwoods, where they fall into the clutches of suave bootlegger Candy Man (Yves Montand) whose ramshackle crew includes Nancy. With Gowan passed out Temple is raped by Candy, despite Nancy's warnings. Temple anyway falls in love with her abuser and he installs her in a brothel, where she enjoys a life of blissful nihilism. Their turbulent relationship is interrupted by a fiery automobile crash, and Temple is thrown back into the clutches of domesticity with Gowan, with a lot more turmoil to come.

William Faulkner made his reputation with the book Sanctuary, published in 1931, and the sequel Requiem for a Nun followed twenty years later. Pre-Code Hollywood took a quick crack at the first novel with 1933's scandalous The Story of Temple Drake, starring Miriam Hopkins. With the Code just beginning to wobble, the 1961 version of Sanctuary provides plenty of sizzle but cannot overcome the inherent weaknesses of the story.

Director Tony Richardson surrenders to the plot's convulsions and does not exhibit much control. The film jumps between scenes, settings and eras with jerks rather than transitions, and with insufficient character depth to cover up the cracks. A governor's daughter disappears in the backwoods and reappears living in a New Orleans brothel, and no one seems to care enough to look for her. She re-enters civilized society with no questions asked.

The psychological turmoil within Temple driving her to love a criminal like Candy as he rapes and abuses her exists only by extension, and not by any conscious script definition. The motivation for the murder of the infant, once it arrives, is much less than convincing.

Despite the shortcomings Sanctuary provides transfixing adult-level entertainment, the 90 minutes filled with memorable and stark events. Temple's full embrace of life as an exploited and kept woman is presented as a terrifying dance with darkness, Candy Man a metaphor for all that feeds the flesh and destroys the soul. Surrounded by limp drunkards like Gowan, Temple's thrill seeking search for primal masculine danger is almost understandable, and Richardson at least opens the door on the conversation as to what compels some women to seek the embrace of a reprehensible debaucher.

The backwoods scenes are excellent preludes to the characters in Deliverance, and the film takes an intriguing turn towards horror as Temple faces threats from inbred retards only for the exceptionally well dressed and seemingly out of context Candy Man to emerge as the real gateway to hell.

Lee Remick does her best with the material, but could have benefitted from more scenes to colour in her spirit. Yves Montand is all smoky menace, an almost spectral presence demanding absolute submission.

Sanctuary may lack some credibility and coherence, but it has enough substance to satisfy.

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