A killer book (Dog Soldiers) must hide behind a Credence Clearwater tune. Karel Reisz’s killer movie about the moral residue of Vietnam scores as both drama and action — disillusioned counterculture smugglers versus corrupt narcotics cops. Just don’t expect it to really have much to say about the Vietnam experience. But hey, the cast is tops — Nick Nolte, Richard Masur, Anthony Zerbe — and the marvelous Tuesday Weld is even better as a pill-soaked involuntary initiate into the pre- War On Drugs smuggling scene.
Who’ll Stop the Rain
1978 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 126 min. / Street Date May 16, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring: Nick Nolte, Tuesday Weld, Michael Moriarty, Anthony Zerbe, Richard Masur, Ray Sharkey, Gail Strickland, Charles Haid, David Opatoshu, Joaquín Martínez, James Cranna, Timothy Blake.
Cinematography: Richard H. Kiline
Supervising Film Editor: John Bloom
Original Music: Laurence Rosenthal
Written by Judith Rascoe, Robert Stone from his novel Dog Soldiers
Produced by Herb Jaffe, Gabriel Katzka
Directed by Karel Reisz
I guess William Bayer was right when he said that successful movies identify a public desire before the public knows they have it. He was talking about pictures like Bonnie and Clyde — before Warren Beatty’s movie, the 1930s depression years were not even registering on the social barometer. At the end of the 1970s came a trickle of movies about Vietnam, both cheap and expensive. The war had been a mostly hands-off proposition for Hollywood while it was being fought, but Michael Cimino now struck gold with a movie about Middle America gone to war. Francis Coppola’s psychedelic take on the conflict arrived a year later. It had been in production so long that Cimino was surely shocked to reach the screens first.
The same thing happened with a film adaptation of Robert Stone’s respected book Dog Soldiers, a tangential Vietnam war movie that dealt with the ugly corruption that any war engenders. Good people get involved with drug smuggling, providing Stone with the opportunity to get everything about America that bugs him off his chest. Stone co-wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation, re-titled Who’ll Stop the Rain in a commercial bid to tie in with the Creedence Clearwater song. Although the characterizations are strong, much of the social context was dropped, leaving behind a smart, brutal crime thriller. The critics clobbered it as just another shoot ’em up with pretensions toward importance. Audiences could have embraced the refreshingly honest characters, but instead found it a downer.
Disillusioned, somewhat gullible reporter John Converse (Michael Moriarty) acts on the impulse to transport two kilos of heroin to America for the Saigon-based Charmian (Gail Strickland). He entreats his Merchant Marine buddy Ray Hicks (Nick Nolte) to smuggle the goods on his ship departing for San Francisco. John tells his wife Marge Converse (Tuesday Weld) nothing except to have $2,000 ready to pay Ray when he arrives at their apartment in Berkeley. Marge takes care of their young son. She has disillusionment problems of her own, sourced partly in John’s irresponsibility. She has acquired a pill-popping habit, and thus flakes on the money arrangement when Ray shows. That’s actually a good thing, because Charmian has double-crossed John from the beginning. Waiting to take the dope by force are the thugs Danskin and Smitty (Richard Masur and Ray Sharkey). Outraged at once again getting into deep jeopardy, Ray takes responsibility for Marge, overpowering the thieves and fleeing with her to Los Angeles. Danskin and Smitty are working for Antheil (Anthony Zerbe), a crooked narcotics cop in league with Charmian. As soon as John arrives by plane the criminal trio seizes him as a hostage to force Ray and Marge to surrender the heroin. Nobody can go to the cops. Ray tries to offload the dope in Los Angeles, and when that fails takes Marge and heads East, back to the mountains of New Mexico where his hippie friends once ran a commune.
I assume that Robert Stone’s original novel had much more to say because this trimmed-down narrative makes Nick Nolte’s character seem like Rambo. Ray Hicks has a Malibu hilltop camp in a temp building, much like the legendary creative headquarters for Sam Peckinpah, when the TV writer was working on getting his directing career started. He also has a Land Rover stashed away as well as a buried cache of weapons and ammo. Is this the first glimmering of survivalist, soldier-of-fortune extremism in American movies?
Ace director Karel Reisz gets most everything right, especially the setting and characterizations — Marge’s Berkeley apartment is a world removed from the L.A. swinging singles apartment that Ray visits, looking for a buyer. Even the furniture is exactly right. Excellent scene setting and dialogue brings out a score of strong personalities. Richard Masur’s thug Danskin combines ruthlessness with a fairly hilarious wit. He needs it to get along with his co-thug Smitty, a pea-brain so dumb that he thinks his robbing and killing will earn him a badge as a real narcotics officer like Antheil. Anthony Zerbe’s dirty fed excels at arrogant ambition, making a stock role something distinctive. We believe the setup. As in old noir paranoia-fests like Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall Marge, Ray and John are one moment in the clear and the next on the run for their lives, unable to go to the authorities for help.
One purely contextual scene is perhaps the film’s most original construction. Ray contacts Eddie Peace (Charles Haid), a flaky and wholly insincere pusher to a wealthy clientele in the Hollywood Hills. Ray thinks he’s going to meet somebody to buy his heroin, but Eddie instead introduces him to two upscale airheads that want to sample hard drugs as a diversion, perhaps to brag to their friends. Eddie expects Ray to scare the couple, presumably for profit. But Ray is so fundamentally sickened by Eddie’s treachery and their hosts’ idiocy that he gives them both overdoses and leaves Eddie to clean up the mess. Ray is sick of being pushed around by creeps like Eddie and sick of ‘Martians’ like the upscale couple, who think that the world of corruption can be visited for fun. The scene is essential because it establishes Ray Hicks as a dangerous and unforgiving man, not a cardboard action hero.
Ray’s personal code was formed in a hippie commune, and neither the armed services nor John Converse measure up to that ideal. The part of the movie in which Ray ‘helps’ Marge cope by giving her heroin has always been difficult for this viewer — it seems wholly counterproductive, suicidal. But Ray is supposed to have all that background in the hippie commune. He behaves like one of those volunteer drug experts that manned the O.D. booth in the documentary Woodstock. The point where Ray gets Marge high is probably the moment when many viewers tuned out of Who’ll Stop the Rain, as a hopeful ending no longer seems possible.
The much-maligned Michael Moriarty also surely turned audiences off, when the fact is that the actor nails a particular kind of passive California personality. Despite a dreamy opening sequence that clearly shows that John has become unhinged, we grow impatient when he doesn’t act rationally. John isn’t supposed to be ignorant, and when he dives into top-level drug trafficking he ought to realize that he’s a creampuff. He all but invites the pro villains to use him to grease the gears of their smuggling mechanism. Acting as if he doesn’t care, John pulls Ray into his flaky deal. And we don’t forgive him for setting up Marge the way he does. In the space of a half hour she loses everything, even her child. John puts up with torture and humiliation as if he already knows that nothing really matters. He loves Marge and what’s happening is sad, but what’s the use of getting all worked up? The character is difficult to play and Moriarty does it well, but it’s the kind of role that audiences resent rather than appreciate.
In a standard crime saga of this sort the Marge character would be there to represent innocence and decent values while bearing an ordeal of threats, kidnapping, violence, etc.. The book’s Marge is not at all innocent. She expresses her disillusion by doing things like working as a cashier at a porn theater. In the book she also knows full well about the drug deal. Tuesday Weld is again better than her role. We believe that the film’s Marge is a good person hooked on pills, capable of good judgment but thwarted by the crazy circumstances. Marge despairs, goes into a funk and is to some extent reborn under Ray’s coaching. She’s quite a character — we could accept a future arrangement with Marge cohabiting with both men . . . with John having an attitude of, ‘It’s okay by me.’
But all this is put in jeopardy by a gunfight high in the New Mexico mountains. When he sees Marge willing to go to her death to save John, Ray is motivated to serve as her champion — the woman has become the love of his life.
Who’ll Stop the Rain resonates with the times, although it’s only contextually a movie about Vietnam. Like Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way, it defines ‘Vietnam’ not as a war in some foreign country but an ‘Evil America’ corrupted by money and slick crime. When Ray leaps up to fight the dirty cops in Marge’s defense he proclaims, “We can WIN this one!” In an exploitation picture that would be the cue for Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris to start killing bad guys, that things will be resolved in action. Reisz at least gives us a decent action scene. Our heroes aren’t invulnerable against machine guns, and editor John Bloom doesn’t resort to debasing Peckinpah slow motion visuals, glorifying the sight of Ray blasting away with his arm muscles bulging.
The reasonably satisfying final scene reaches for mythic status and doesn’t quite make it. When he propped himself up on the railroad tracks, we hope that Ray knew that no train would come along. The Creedence Clearwater hit record slams in right where it’s needed, but it takes us out of the moment. We’re not thinking of what will happen to these people we care about, but instead, ‘Oh, was that top-40 radio pop song supposed to be about Vietnam all along?’
The well-directed movie has a good pace and fine scenes between Weld and Nolte, and Moriarty and his flaky captors — love Masur’s “Tweety Bird” remark. I enjoy the show yet have always felt that it reaches too far for a meaningful statement, to the detriment of simple storytelling. Either not enough or too much of the book was retained, perhaps. The fade-out has us wondering how John will explain to Marge why he did what he did. He’s got no excuse, which I guess is what can also be said about America at the time. See, this pretension thing is definitely contagious.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Who’ll Stop the Rain makes Karel Reisz’s picture look better than ever, with HD giving the image a serious boost in color and sharpness. The filmmakers must have wanted to avoid blasts of bright color, for the otherwise impressive fireball at the beginning still looks rather brown and dull, clearly on purpose. I can hear somebody saying, ‘Don’t make it look pretty.’
Besides a trailer, the one extra is an 18-minute talk with the prolific editor John Bloom, who says interesting things but uses a bit too much of the track to simply repeat how much he likes every aspect of the movie. I didn’t know about author Robert Stone’s background with Ken Kesey’s traveling band of counterculture folk, which motivates the abandoned hippie hangout in the New Mexico canyon.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes provide background for the actors and director, helping to connect the film to its award-winning book and the Vietnam experience in general. The reproduction of the poster reminds me why I didn’t see the movie first run — it looks like it’s trying to commercialize on the counterculture ethos . . . a feat few filmmakers were able to pull off.
Film notes by Kevin Hagopian recount the show’s unfortunate critical reception, especially that by Pauline Kael. While extolling the virtues of favorites like Robert Altman, Kael treated Who’ll Stop the Rain like something to be scraped off one’s shoe. Pauline’s critique centers on Tuesday Weld’s choice of costumes. Her overall putdown reached beyond the screen: “The actual plot of the film is simple to the point of pulp-dom. It comes from an excruciatingly poor novel called Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, which for some reason won the National Book Award.”
I always wonder why the title carries no question mark. If the song title is not a question, I get this mental image of John Fogerty calling from inside an outhouse, asking somebody named ‘Who’ll’ to make the rain stop.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Who’ll Stop the Rain
Movie: Very Good + Plus
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, video feature with editor John Bloom, trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: May 21, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson