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By the late 1960s, Francis Ford Coppola had made a name for himself as a screenwriter on several big-budget films, and had directed a couple of quirky features--a low-budget horror film for Roger Corman's American-International Pictures, Dementia 13 (1963), and his UCLA masters' thesis film, the goofy comedy You're a Big Boy Now (1966). Warner Bros. then entrusted him with the musical Finian's Rainbow (1968), starring Fred Astaire. The studio was pleased with Coppola's speed and efficiency, and even though the film was a flop, the studio agreed to finance his next project. Unhappy with his lack of control on Finian's Rainbow, Coppola decided to make a smaller, more personal film that he would write and direct, The Rain People (1969).
Coppola had met actress Shirley Knight at the Cannes Film Festival in 1967, when he was there with You're a Big Boy Now, and she was there as the star of the searing Dutchman (1967). Upset by a confrontation with a journalist, Knight was crying when Coppola saw her and he said, "Don't cry, I'm going to write a film for you." In The Rain People, Knight plays a pregnant runaway housewife. Natalie Ravenna is not sure she wants to be a mother, and not sure she wants to be married. She impulsively gets in her car, and begins a cross-country odyssey of self-discovery. She picks up a hitchhiker (James Caan), a former football player whose career ended when he suffered a brain injury during a game. In Nebraska, the two have a fateful encounter with a widowed motorcycle policeman (Robert Duvall).
Coppola filmed The Rain People entirely on location, traveling with a caravan of five cars plus a refurbished minibus to carry equipment. Among his crew were associate producers George Lucas and Mona Skager, both of whom would become key players in his production company. Lucas also directed a "making of" documentary that gives a fascinating glimpse of Coppola's guerrilla filmmaking style. He went on the road without a completed screenplay, inserting incidents that they stumbled upon in their travels, such as a parade in Tennessee, and constantly revising the script. He also relied on improvisations by the actors to help him shape scenes. Shirley Knight had trouble working in such an unstructured environment, and she and Coppola had some arguments about it. Nevertheless, she gives a superb performance as the conflicted housewife.
In spite of the difficulties of filming on location, Coppola finished The Rain People on schedule and slightly under budget. Energized by the experience, the director became determined to make his films away from the Hollywood movie factory. He set up his own company, American Zoetrope, in San Francisco in late 1969, with Lucas as vice-president and Skager as secretary-treasurer. The Rain People was the first film released as an American Zoetrope production, although Warner Bros. distributed it.
Reviews were mixed. According to Variety, "Writer-director Francis Coppola, scrutinizing the flight of a neurotic young woman and her efforts to assist a brain-damaged ex-football player, has developed an overlong, brooding film. Often lingering too long on detail to build effects, he manages to lose character sympathy." Pauline Kael observed, "There's a prodigious amount of talent in Francis Ford Coppola's unusual, little-seen film, but the writer-director applies his craftsmanship with undue solemnity to material that suggests a gifted college student's imitation of early Tennessee Williams." And Roger Ebert was admiring, but non-committal. "It's difficult to say whether this film is successful or not," he wrote. "That's the beautiful thing about a lot of the new, experimental American directors. They'd rather do interesting things and make provocative observations than try to outflank John Ford on his way to the Great American Movie."
Most critics had praise for the performances in The Rain People, and it won both the Grand Prize and the best director award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. But it did not perform well at the box office. Over the years, however, it has acquired a cult status as an early feminist film for its provocative treatment of a woman seeking her own identity. And even though it was not a success, Coppola's next film as a director, featuring two of the actors from The Rain People, Duvall and Caan, would be a blockbuster: The Godfather (1972).
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Producer: Bart Patton, Ronald Colby
Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola, based on his story, "Echoes"
Cinematography: Wilmer C. (Bill) Butler
Editor: Blackie (Barry) Malkin
Art Direction: Leon Ericksen
Music: Ronald Stein
Principal Cast: James Caan (Jimmie "Killer" Kilgannon), Shirley Knight (Natalie Ravenna), Robert Duvall (Gordon), Marya Zimmet (Rosalie), Tom Aldredge (Mr. Alfred), Laurie Crews (Ellen), Andrew Duncan (Artie).
C-102m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri