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After Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) toppled Hollywood's generation-long taboo against depicting narcotics addiction on the big screen, the studios seemingly couldn't wait to mine the dramatic potential of such controversial subject matter. Fox, for its part, turned to a recently-staged Broadway drama that had been lauded as one of the finest plays ever crafted on the subject of drug abuse, and tapped director Fred Zinnemann to bring playwright/actor Michael V. Gazzo's powerful A Hatful of Rain to film. The finished 1957 movie version, asserted to be the first such approved under the revised Production Code, unfortunately didn't cause much of a ripple at the box office in its day, but it does boast a collection of remarkable central performances and effectively captured Gazzo's gritty narrative for posterity.
A Hatful of Rain takes place in the NYC project apartment shared by Korean War vet Johnny Pope (Don Murray), his pregnant wife Celia (Eva Marie Saint) and his younger brother Polo (Anthony Franciosa). The household has braced for a visit from overbearing patriarch John Sr. (Lloyd Nolan), and it turns out to be as stressful as anticipated. The elder Pope doesn't understand the reason for Johnny's marked displays of anxiousness, and saves his vitriol, as he always seems to, for Polo. The father voices his contempt for Polo's dead-end career as a bouncer, and lashes out at the younger son over his inability to offer him a $2500 loan.
Johnny excuses himself for a hallway rendezvous with some "poker buddies" who have dropped by unannounced. These asserted cronies--Mother (Henry Silva), Church (Gerald O'Loughlin) and Apples (William Hickey)--are in fact the pushers that Johnny has frequented since he came back from combat with a habit, and they've shown up to let him know that his credit is no longer good. Mother leaves Johnny with a handgun, suggesting that he turn to theft if he wants to clear up his debt.
Polo's the only family member who knows the nature of the lie that Johnny's been living; the life savings that he had refused to lend their father had long since made their way into his big brother's veins. Celia's aware that something's wrong, but the extent of her suspicions point toward another woman. As a withdrawal-wracked Johnny makes his way through the streets in search of ill-gotten cash, Celia has it out with Polo over the resentment he harbors toward his brother, and the unspoken feelings she knows Polo holds for her. The balance of the narrative follows Johnny as he struggles to come to terms with his addiction, as well as his family members' search for mutual reconciliation.
With the blacklist still very much in force, Zinnemann clandestinely assigned an uncredited Carl Foreman to reshape Gazzo's dramaturgy for the camera. In his autobiography, the director reminisced about how he and Murray researched the nature of an addict's existence in New York City. "We had cooperation from the Narcotics Squad and were taken into 'hot' areas in daytime and in the dead of night, able to observe many things and make mental notes which would be of enormous value to us later on," Zinnemann wrote. "A most harrowing experience was seeing patients at the corrective hospital at Ryker's Island [where] the hard cases were treated."
Zinnemann was less than thrilled with the studio's mandate that A Hatful of Rain be shot, like all Fox releases of the day, in Cinemascope. Beyond its questionable appropriateness for such intimate subject matter, the director was flatly no fan of "this ridiculous format, shaped like an elongated band-aid. It tended to defeat the director in his choice of the precise point he wanted the audience to look at; instead, the viewers' eyes went roaming over those acres of screen...I remember spending much time inventing large foreground pieces to hide at least one-third of the screen."
A Hatful of Rain's only Academy Award® nomination that year came in the form of a deserved Best Actor nomination for Franciosa, who had similarly been Tony-nominated for his efforts in creating the role of Polo onstage. The original Broadway cast also included Ben Gazarra as Johnny, Franciosa's future spouse Shelley Winters as Celia, and Silva, the sole other carryover to the screen production, as Mother.
Producer: Buddy Adler
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Alfred Hayes; Michael Vincente Gazzo (screenplay and play); Carl Foreman (originally uncredited)
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Art Direction: Leland Fuller, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Don Murray (Johnny Pope), Eva Marie Saint (Celia Pope), Anthony Franciosa (Polo Pope), Lloyd Nolan (John Pope, Sr.), Henry Silva (Mother), Gerald S. O'Loughlin (Chuch), William Hickey (Apples), Paul Kruger (Bartender), Ralph Montgomery (Spectator).
by Jay S. Steinberg