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Once upon a time, Francis Ford Coppola and a dozen or so like-minded young filmmakers alienated by the Hollywood power system started their own San Francisco- based company, American Zoetrope. Promising a bounty of counter-culture pictures that would 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 The Rain People, a movie that was talked about but little seen. Sort of an Americanized foreign film with lofty artistic ambitions, the 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 the strained Finian's Rainbow were career warm-ups, like his earlier Dementia 13 from the Roger Corman days. Too heartfelt to really be pretentious, The Rain People is sort of an alternate Easy Rider: an alienated woman drives off in search of her own identity.
Natalie Ravenna (Shirley Knight) steps into her station wagon one morning and drives 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 that the experience will help cure her indecisiveness. The young man turns out to be a brain-damaged college football player. He's a functional child, calm but easily distracted and incapable of understanding much or doing adult work. Natalie tries to leave her hitchhiker with a prospective employer (whose daughter was once Killer's girlfriend) and then at a reptile farm run by a man 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 tries to shake free of responsibility, only to form 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 "on the road" feeling that's felt in only a couple of early 70's 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." (para.) The speech might sound like freeze-dried Antonioni, but it works in context despite the fact that Killer is otherwise practically monosyllabic, incapable of putting a thought together.
We quickly grasp that Killer represents 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 also turns out to be 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 had a 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?
None of this makes the confused Natalie happy, as she's just trying to "find herself" and enjoy what she calls a Heavy Date. Her motorcycle cop Gordon is a bigger chauvinist than her husband, but he's good-looking and available. Unfortunately, the date winds up at Gordon's trailer, where his 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 become a silly joke. Coppola shoots some scenes in unbroken takes, as when Natalie sits on the edge of a motel room bed and assesses her personal emptiness. Shirley Knight's phone calls home are powerful statements supporting feminist ideas. Both Vinnie and Gordon define her only as a wife, responsible to her husband in all things. Coppola inserts telling flashbacks to Natalie's wedding, as if she's trying to understand where that happy woman went. Gordon is something of a pig, and his bedside tactic is to claim that his late wife meant nothing to him. But flashbacks reveal his torment when he lost his wife to a house fire.
The Rain People shares a shelf with a few other late- 60s "sensitive relationship" films that did reasonable business when a star cast was involved: I Never Sang for My Father, The Subject Was Roses, Rachel, rachel. With its unhappy, rain-soaked conclusion, Coppola's film was greeted by Warners with blank looks, as was Zoetrope's follow-up science fiction movie THX 1138, directed by a Rain People production associate, George Lucas. Coppola and Lucas's timing clicked soon thereafter, making them two of the top directors of the 1970s.
A great documentary on early Zoetrope history including the production of The Rain People can be found as an extra on the DVD of THX 1138.
Warners' disc of The Rain People isn't available through normal retail outlets; it's a Warner Bros. Archives Collection disc sold through a special website. With DVD sales leveling off and a limited consumer base for older, more obscure vault titles, the studio has inaugurated a new publish-on-demand retail system. The discs cost 19.95 each (shipping extra). The selection tends toward vintage classics and relatively newer movies (like The Rain People) that just can't justify the cost of normal authoring and replication, promotion and distribution.
The website gives little 30-second previews of most of the titles to allow shoppers to judge quality, a good idea indeed. Not all are remastered, but the promise is that all widescreen movies will be presented at their appropriate aspect ratio in enhanced transfers. Older flat films are sometimes sourced from 1990s transfers that might not be as sharp or as perfect as newly-remastered titles.
The Rain People is a good-looking enhanced 1:85 transfer with excellent color. Some shots look a trifle soft, especially when opticals are involved; and a little dirt and speckling are present here and there. The compression is very good but not quite as clean as a fully-restored effort. Ronald Stein's music score comes across very well on the soundtrack, but viewers are advised to turn the volume up a bit to hear Vinny's voice over the phone, as the mix hasn't been adjusted for home video.
The discs are replicated on demand in the DVD-R format; they are guaranteed to play only in stand-alone DVD players. Warners claims that their discs are different than DVD-Rs one might burn at home but some viewers have expressed concern that DVD-Rs by definition are not reliably permanent, with a 3-to-5 year life span sometimes mentioned. I haven't heard a conclusive argument either way on this issue.
My other concern has been answered well enough by industry friends who work in professional film restoration. I look at the good-but-not-remastered disc of the gangster favorite Beast of the City and wonder if its availability through the Archive puts it at the bottom of the list for restoration; it's good enough to be a candidate for eventual "normal" DVD release, as I suspect is the situation with many other Warners offerings: the aforementioned You're A Big Boy Now; Hammer's lavish version of She with Ursula Andress. I've been assured that many films are restored for a number of uses beyond DVD -- cable television, foreign TV contracts, etc. If anything, the exposure of a deserving film on an Archive release might encourage a re-master.
All in all, the Warner Archives experiment is something to be applauded. Vocal DVD fans have often (and loudly) expressed their frustration at not being able to buy discs of ALL the movies they want to see. Warners' Archive is a direct attempt to give these consumers what they want. I know people who would pay much more for rare and/or unfashionable titles like Doc Savage The Man of Bronze, Crescendo, Captain Sindbad and Captain Nemo and the Underwater City, pictures that stopped being shown with the advent of cable TV. Other studios (notably Sony) have hinted at similar collector-friendly Archive programs; publish-on-demand web sales may be an optimal interim delivery system until a future date when cable and web downloads connect consumers to entire studio libraries.
Now, all Warners needs to do is straighten out their crazy website, that categorizes titles willy-nilly under some of the strangest genres. The 1950 Cary Grant film Crisis is a horror film?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Rain People rates:
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