Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rain People” (1969)

Notable Festivals: San Sebastian

A year after releasing his first big-budget studio film (1968’s FINIAN’S RAINBOW), director Francis Ford Coppola was back in theaters with a markedly different feature film.  Channeling the experimental sensibilities and understated narratives of the French New Wave, 1969’s THE RAIN PEOPLE was a subtle, introspective road picture that eschewed all the frills of contemporary studio filmmaking.  For Coppola personally, the film is further notable in that it was the first project released under his fledgling production studio, American Zoetrope.  In the years since, American Zoetrope has been a source of great trial and tribulation for Coppola and his associates, but has consistently delivered on its promise of making original, thought-provoking acts of cinema.  As Zoetrope’s first feature release,  THE RAIN PEOPLE is a fascinating window into the principles and ideals that shaped an upstart indie studio into a cinematic institution.

THE RAIN PEOPLE assumes the perspective of Natalie Ravenna, a lonely housewife who abruptly picks up and hits the road upon learning that she’s pregnant.  Spurning her husband’s pleas to return home, she picks up a handsome, mentally stunted hitchhiker named Killer (James Caan).  The two form an unlikely friendship, with Natalie becoming something of a caretaker to the young man.  Inevitably, Killer falls in love with Natalie, which doesn’t make their situation any easier when Natalie becomes romantically involved with a lonely police officer named Gordon (Robert Duvall).

Coppola’s command of his cast’s performances, especially in regards to their emotional restraint, is superb.  Natalie, as played by Knight, is reserved and conflicted as she suddenly finds herself in the throes of a quarter-life crisis brought about by pregnancy.  It’s a haunting performance, and Knight was rightfully recognized for the strength of her portrayal.

In hindsight, the most interesting aspect of Coppola’s casting is the first instance of collaboration with both James Caan and Robert Duvall.  Everyone knows they’d both go on to legendary performances in Coppola’s next film, THE GODFATHER (1972), but not a lot of people know that Duvall and Caan were actually roommates at one point.  If that doesn’t compel you to amicably figure out who’s taking care of those dishes in the sink tonight, I don’t know what will.

Caan is fresh-faced and quiet as Jimmy Kilgannon, affectionately nicknamed Killer.  His character was a college football player who was left mentally stunted after a particularly bad concussion.  He embodies a child-like innocence, with an unflagging loyalty and obedience to Natalie that’s not unlike a dog.  Duvall, in contrast, is inquisitive and tough as a widowed cop looking for some rough love.  He’s dangerous and unpredictable, which makes him so attractive to Natalie in the first place.  The battle between these two men is well built-up to, and when it finally explodes, it does so with the force of an atomic bomb.

What struck me most upon watching this film was Coppola’s visual treatment of the story.  The picture, lensed by Director of Photography Wilmer Butler, is simple and unadorned.  Coppola and Butler are content to let the 1.85:1 frame simply dwell on its subject, passively observing long, quiet moments of reflection and malaise.  The lighting is as naturalistic as the performances, and the air of realism hangs heavy over the proceedings.  It’s almost the prototypical mumblecore film, what with its low-key look, simple performances and barely perceptible plot developments.

Ronald Stein, who previously supplied the score for Coppola’s DEMENTIA 13 (1963), creates a staccato, melancholy score here that also infuses a little bit of jazz into the rural West Virginian setting.  Contrasting with the musical bombast that was FINIAN’S RAINBOW, Coppola adopts a reserved approach to music that matches his minimalist aesthetic.  Even the film’s opening credits eschew music, opting instead for the quiet patter of early-morning rain and ambient clanking of garbage truck machinery in a quiet suburban neighborhood.

Curiously incongruent with the low-key nature of the photography, however, is Barry Malkin’s editing.  Borrowing heavily from the innovations of the nascent wave of cinema rebels in France, Malkin incorporates a variety of avant-garde techniques like jump-cuts, poetic juxtaposition, mismatched sound cues, etc.  Coppola and Malkin often pepper dialogue scenes with wordless flashes of perpendicular action, flashing forward or backwards to illuminate events that bring greater meaning to the dialogue sequence at hand.  The groundbreaking editing, when combined with the minimalist visual style, gives the film a very European vibe.

This points to a common, definitive trait of the “Film Brat” generation of directors– that of reference and/or allusion to classic works as well as the work of their contemporaries abroad.  Unlike the directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, directors like Coppola were part of a larger community of filmmakers inspiring each other in their attempts to redefine the language of cinema.

Coppola counts THE RAIN PEOPLE among the top five favorite films of his own making, and for good reason.  It’s a strikingly confident work, free of the studio interference that would come to plague him as he became more successful.  It was also his first collaboration with future STAR WARS  creator George Lucas, who served as production associate on the film.  Filmmakers like Lucas were one of the reasons that Coppola founded American Zoetrope– he sought not only to advance his own cinematic interests, but to further the innovative spirit of filmmaking by empowering like-minded directors and giving them the resources to create outside of a stifling studio system.

Ironically enough, Coppola’s next film would beholden him to the studio system more so than he ever wanted (albeit at great benefit to his career).  In that context, THE RAIN PEOPLE is an interesting look into an artistically pure Coppola, unfettered by outside opinions and influence, as he cements his particular brand of storytelling and characterization.

THE RAIN PEOPLE is currently available on standard definition DVD from Warner Brothers, as well as in its entirety via Youtube (embedded above).

Credits:

Starring: Shirley Knight, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Marya Zimmer

Produced by: Ronald Colby, Bart Patton

Written by: Francis Ford Coppola

Director of Photography: Wilmer Butler

Edited by: Barry Malkin

Production Designer: Leon Erickson

Score: Ronald Stein