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The Rain People

by Glenn Erickson May 21, 2024

Francis Ford Coppola’s first personal film through his Zoetrope experiment is an acting tour-de-force for Shirley Knight, a purposely marginal road movie in search of cinema truth. It comes out as an honorable attempt to meld Americana and European ‘film honesty;’ what we really admire is Coppola’s expert direction of Knight and her co-stars, James Caan and Robert Duvall.


The Rain People
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1969 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 102 min. / Available at MovieZyng / Street Date May 7, 2024 / 21.99
Starring: James Caan, Shirley Knight, Robert Duvall, Marya Zimmet, Tom Aldredge, Laura Crews, Andrew Duncan.
Cinematography: Wilmer (Bill) Butler
Art Director: Leon Ericksen
Film Editor: Blackie (Barry) Malkin
Original Music: Ronald Stein
Produced by Ronald Colby, Bart Patton
Written and Directed by
Francis Ford Coppola

As George Feltenstein is as pleased to note, this year marks the 15th anniversary of the inauguration of The Warner Archive Collection, an innovation in DVD marketing and production that catered to movie-loving disc collectors.

The Rain People was one of the first offerings of the The Warner Archive, and exactly the kind of feature the WAC was invented to service: something for collectors, not a Blockbuster rental.

 The Rain People is a major step in the filmic career of Francis Ford Coppola — who is still making big news 55 years later with his wholly personal epic Megalopolis. Once upon a time, Coppola and a dozen or so like-minded young filmmakers striving to re-invent the Hollywood system started their own San Francisco- based company, American Zoetrope. Promising a bounty of pictures to win youthful audiences, Coppola talked Warners into letting him film his own screenplay about a road trip from New York to the Midwest while actually on the road. The result was a movie that was talked about but little seen … in these ‘crossover’ years the major studios bankrolled quite a few counterculture movies, but didn’t know how to profitably distribute them.

 

Sort of an Americanized foreign film with lofty artistic ambitions, Coppola’s moody tale of a runaway wife is nevertheless a very individualized statement. In a way, Coppola’s hilarious  You’re a Big Boy Now and his strained  Finian’s Rainbow were as much commercial warm-ups as was his earlier  Dementia 13 from his Roger Corman days. Too heartfelt to really be pretentious, The Rain People is sort of an alternate  Easy Rider: an alienated housewife drives off in search of her own identity.

Coppola’s on-the-road realism is evident from the start. Natalie Ravenna (Shirley Knight) steps into her station wagon one morning and takes off in a Westerly direction, leaving her husband Vinny (Robert Modica) and her Long Island house behind. She makes intermittent phone calls home, trying to explain that she feels imprisoned in their marriage and needs some time to be alone. Vinny’s frantic response turns hostile when Natalie tells him that she’s pregnant and might want to abort the child. Natalie picks up a handsome young hitchhiker in the rain, Jimmy ‘Killer’ Kilgannon (James Caan). She has notions of a quick one-night, perhaps thinking the experience will put an end to her confusion.

Killer turns out to be a brain-damaged college football player ‘dumped’ by his former caretakers. He’s a functional child, calm but easily distracted and incapable of understanding much or doing adult work. Natalie tries to discard her hitchhiker with a prospective employer whose daughter was once Killer’s girlfriend. And the owner of a reptile farm is eager to ‘take care’ of the thousand dollars Killer is carrying. Like a lost puppy, Killer is still present when Natalie meets Gordon, a widowed highway patrolman (Robert Duvall) who makes it clear that he wants to take her to bed. Natalie was looking for personal freedom, but her odyssey only brings more unwanted attachments.

 

Coppola’s free-form screenplay was engineered to take advantage of surprises and accidents that happen along the route of filming that stretched from New York to Nebraska. His movie has an authentic ‘Kerouac’ feeling, one felt in only a couple of early ’70s movies, notably  Two-Lane Blacktop. It rains often, mirroring Natalie’s inner sadness and prompting Killer’s rather portentous dialogue line:

“Rain people are people made of rain. When they cry, they disappear.”

Coppola normally avoided such canned profundity. Killer is unfortunately one of those magic mental handicapees found only in the movies. He’s practically monosyllabic, incapable of putting a thought together, yet he comes out with such a touching phrase. It works in context because James Caan says it so naturally … and because we’re eager to see The Rain People tale on a familiar shape, even if the shape is that of a precious art film. We quickly grasp that Killer could represent Natalie’s unborn child, a nagging responsibility that cannot be ignored.

 

Killer isn’t a particularly realistic simpleton. In addition to his poetic skills, he’s rigorously decent, polite, housebroken and noble, Gunga Din in a linebacker’s body. Killer becomes an emancipator of oppressed animals at the ratty reptile farm. His salient forebears at the time were Lenny from Of Mice and Men and perhaps Boo Radley (Robert Duvall!) from  To Kill a Mockingbird. Since then we’ve seen any number of love stories about child-men that form ‘pure’ romantic relationships with deserving females. I call movies like Untamed Heart and Benny & Joon ‘Human Lassie’ fantasies. The guys are like pet dogs, docile boyfriends lacking troublesome agendas of their own. All that’s missing is intelligent conversation. A baby is unnecessary, as the boyfriend already fulfills that role. What girl could resist?

The troubled Natalie is just trying to find herself and enjoy what she calls a Heavy Date, a theme that in 1969 was a major statement for feminism. What’s keeping millions of unfulfilled housewives from Just Saying No to marital servitude and hitting the road?  But Natalie’s rash escape provides no relief. Her motorcycle cop Gordon is good-looking and available, but also a bigger chauvinist than her husband. Unfortunately, Their hot date winds up at Gordon’s trailer, where Gordon’s curious, precocious daughter Rosalie (Marya Zimmet) asks if she can watch. Nothing’s easy for poor Natalie.

Francis Coppola’s ease with actors is already in evidence; both of his leading men would of course become big stars in his  Godfather films. All of the acting is natural, even James Caan in a role that could easily have invited jeers of “can I feed the rabbits?”  Always in search of ‘real’ moments, Coppola shoots some scenes in unbroken takes, as when Natalie sits on the edge of a motel room bed and assesses her personal emptiness.

 

In that way Shirley Knight reminds us of Antonioni’s  Monica Vitti. Natalie’s phone calls home are powerful statements in support of feminist assertiveness in the face of a cultural mandate to fulfill other people’s expectations. Gordon is something of a pig, and his bedside tactic is to claim that his late wife meant nothing to him. Neither Caan nor Duvall try to run away with the movie — their characters offer solid support to Ms. Knight’s Natalie. The movie is a strong showcase for all three of them and especially director Coppola, who shows that he’s firmly in charge of everything that reaches the screen.

Associative flashbacks illuminate the past for Natalie, bursts of handheld shots from Natalie’s wedding, as if she’s trying to understand where that happy woman went. Likewise, we see impressions of Killer’s previous football action, and the tragic true backstory of Gordon and his first wife. The editor on The Rain People is Barry Malkin, who would work on many of Coppola’s best pictures. The editorial and production crew credits are fat with future talent: George and Marcia Lucas, Richard Marks, Walter Murch.

The Rain People shares a shelf with a few other late- ’60s sensitive relationship films stressing strong performances:  I Never Sang for My Father,  The Subject Was Roses,  Rachel, Rachel. With its unhappy, rain-soaked conclusion, Coppola’s film was likely greeted by Warners with the same blank looks they gave Zoetrope’s follow-up science fiction movie  THX 1138, directed by a very young Zoetrooper, George Lucas. Coppola and Lucas’s timing clicked soon thereafter, making them top directors and their names household words.

 


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Rain People a restoration, in 2019, by Zoetrope and Warner Bros. Colors are still rich, and the audio is much improved, from the early WAC DVD. Coppola’s purposely naturalistic approach tries to use as little artificial light as possible, and the added constrast range helps retain the image texture in shadows.

The disc has no extras. A great documentary on early Zoetrope history including the production of The Rain People can be found as an extra on the old DVD and Blu-ray of George Lucas’s  THX 1138.

I can mentally picture the three stars when the film is set for release, wondering how they’ll be depicted on the poster … which bears an image through a rainy windshield, identifying nobody!

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Rain People
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)

Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 18, 2024
(7128rain)CINESAVANT

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.

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Text © Copyright 2024 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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[…] The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Friendly Persuasion is one of four titles this month we’ve long wanted on HD disc — the others are Fred Zinnemann’s  The Nun’s Story and Francis Ford Coppola’s  You’re a Big Boy Now and  The Rain People. […]

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