Welcome to the Criterion Corner, where we break down some of the month’s new releases from the Criterion Collection.
#1006: The Story of Temple Drake (1933), dir. Stephen Roberts
The pre-Hays Code era of Hollywood filmmaking has always been a fascinating beast — a wild frontier of lascivious behavior and morally compromised worlds that shock anyone who assumes older American films to be purely chaste and proper. One of the best, most undersung of these is Stephen Roberts‘ The Story of Temple Drake, loosely adapted from the controversial William Faulkner novel Sanctuary. It, and the novel on which it’s based, tells the tale of a young woman (played with coquettish dynamism by Miriam Hopkins) who flaunts the expectations of a well-off white girl of her station by chasing vice and sin with abandon — until she’s raped one fateful night by a gangster named Trigger (a menacing Jack La Rue), whom she later kills in revenge. The rape, and the ensuing murder, become the subject of a contentious trial that will seal her fate, especially among the scandalized community to which she belongs.
Temple Drake is suffused with Gothic atmosphere and nihilism, all the while projecting a surprising honesty about the moral decay of Prohibition-era America. Faulkner’s story is sensational, all right, and Roberts plays up that sensationalism to grand effect: men are lascivious drunks, Temple is a free spirit whose own ethical wrinkles are treated with empathy rather than judgment (unlike the men who surround her). Her troubles echo contemporary post #MeToo conversations, too; the constant threat of rape, the implication that sexual assault is a promiscuous woman’s risk to take, the social pressures for propriety placed upon women they fail to extend to men, and more.
Temple mentions at one point that there are “two mes” in her; the obedient judge’s daughter, and the party girl screaming to get out. And when the two struggle to get out, the rest of the town sees it, and gossip runs rampant. “There’s a wild streak” to the Drakes, lawyer Stephen Benbow’s (William Gargan) aunt warns; The Story of Temple Drake seems as much a cautionary tale against rash judgment of sex-positive women as it is a warning against recklessness and promiscuity.
And of course, there is the whole hostage situation that plays out between Temple and Trigger, a hallucinatory twenty-minute sequence filled with dim, moody lighting and impeccably-paced tension — a kind of aesthetic flourish one rarely expects from the simple voyeurism of many pre-Code pictures. Temple avoids giving easy answers, both about her assault or her revenge against the assaulter, and for that it stands as one of the most intriguing samples of the usefulness of pre-Code controversy.
Criterion knows this, too, given their modest but effective release of the film. The digital restoration is impressive especially considering the picture’s age; Roberts’ Expressionistic direction and lighting get a real workout here, and the graininess that comes from sharpening older films like this is kept to a minimum. Like most older films whose cast and crew aren’t available to interview, most of the bonus features are conversations and showcases of critics and admirers of the film, from the conversation between cinematographer John Bailey and Margaret Herrick Library director Matt Severson talking about the film’s surprising visual style to interviews with Imogen Sara Smith and Mick LaSalle on Miriam Hopkins’ performance and the film’s pre-Code context. It’s a valuable background for those uninitiated with 1920s and 1930s American cinema, and why this picture is such an important example of it.
#1007: Until the End of the World (1991), dir. Wim Wenders
Upon release in 1991, Wim Wenders‘ sci-fi road movie Until the End of the World was a critical and commercial flop. As Wenders (and Criterion) would likely argue, that’s because the three-hour cut sent to audiences wasn’t long enough. In an age that reveres slow cinema and arthouse takes on science fiction, however, 2019 is a much better atmosphere to offer up a film so idiosyncratic and in touch with its own rhythms. Especially, as this edition argues, if the real film is nearly five hours long.
Arguably the filmmaker’s most ambitious effort to date, Until the End of the World is a sprawlingly global, yet easygoing fable about apocalypse, memory, dreams and the power of words. It’s the year 1999, and an Indian communications satellite has spun out of control, threatening global annihilation and causing mankind to rush into a panic. Claire (Solveig Dommartin), a free spirit in the mold of Temple Drake herself, chooses to head off the beaten path in her car, eventually running into everyone from a pair of personable bank robbers (including Chick Ortega) to the enigmatic son (William Hurt) of a disgraced scientist (Max von Sydow) who’s attempting to design new technology to help the blind see and to record memories.
Despite the fact that the end of the world is nigh, Until the End of the World is in no rush to get anywhere, and that’s part of its erstwhile charm. Like Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire before it, Wenders loves to amble along at his own pace, turning apocalypse into a globe-trotting hangout movie that’s more easygoing than anything else. At times, that can test one’s patience — this thing is so long Criterion had to pack it onto two discs, after all — but it’s almost refreshing to see the tropes of a science fiction chase movie upended into a crisis no one seems all that rushed to solve. In doing so, it becomes about our need to forge connections to one another, and the ways in which we run back and forth between the ones we love (made clearest in the love triangle between Claire, Hurt’s Sam, and Sam Neill‘s incessantly-paternalistic novelist Eugene).
It helps immensely that Wenders drenches the film in not just some inventive near-future production design (analog CRT screens that become interactive televisions, quirky over-animated simulations of the Internet), but a killer soundtrack from folks like The Talking Heads, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Elvis Costello. Wenders asked them to craft the kind of songs they thought they’d be making a decade on, and the results are fascinating and highly listenable. When they bleed into the film’s diegesis, they’re even more rewarding; Claire and her erstwhile pals singing Costello’s “Days” in the Australian outback, with didgeridoos and an old piano for accompaniment, is a warm moment of camaraderie that feels like the film’s soul laid bare.
Nearly five hours of movie is a big ask, especially for time-strapped audiences in this day and age. But if you have the patience to sit through Wenders’ deliberately lackadaisical vision of a world too filled with ennui to care that it might be ending (even if it takes a couple of sittings), there’s a lot to like about Until the End of the World‘s visual and tonal lyricism. Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation is certainly the best way to consume it; the 4k transfer, supervised by Wenders, looks gorgeous, and I’m glad they sprung for the 5.1 Dolby master audio soundtrack so we could hear the iconic tracks in crisp clarity. For those who need some context for the film, Wenders helpfully provides a 15-minute introduction (though I’d recommend skipping it if you want to go in as blind as possible, as major plot points are discussed pretty early on).
From there, though, it’s all about Wenders and his process, features including a charming chat between Wenders and David Byrne and interviews from 1993 and 2001 with the man detailing his process. And, of course, there’s a short film about the recording of the film’s most iconic track, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “(I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World.” Whether you’re a fan of off-kilter sci-fi, independent film, or 80s music, this one’s a must-grab.