(WARNING: I am planning to reveal the outcome of the movie discussed in the review below. If you haven’t seen it and are planning to do so, you might want to move along as there’s nothing to see here.)
A young Long Island housewife, Natalie Ravenna (Shirley Knight, in her finest moment onscreen), escapes her stifling existence one morning by leaving her husband and setting out on a personal odyssey driving across America. As the movie progresses, we learn that Natalie is pregnant and that the reason for her flight stems from her belief that she’s not cut out for motherhood—a conviction that is punctuated when she picks up a hitchhiker in former college football player Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon (James Caan). Killer suffers from brain damage, resulting from an injury sustained in a football game, and the steel plate in his head has left him somewhat of a semi-retarded man-child, unemployed and completely helpless to fend for himself. Though her motherly instincts keep drawing Natalie back to Killer, she simply refuses to have anything to do with her surrogate “child”; it’s only when she meets up with a motorcycle cop (Robert Duvall) for a disastrous one-night stand (that results in Killer’s death) that begins to reassess her motherhood “qualifications.”
The Rain People (1969) is one of the current 150 offerings at the Warner Archive, and I purchased a copy as part of my “initiation” because this tragic and haunting movie (I suppose I don’t have to mention it’s a bit of a downer) has long been one of my favorites—one of those rare Hollywood films that deals sensitively with a real woman and her problems. Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola (from a short story he penned at UCLA entitled Echoes), People used to be a fixture on the USA Network (along with other 70s sleepers like Taking Off  and Your Three Minutes are Up ) before they became a dumping ground for “original series” and endless repeats of Law & Order: SVU/Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Since that time, I’ve rarely seen the film scheduled anywhere; so it was worth ponying up the Archive’s admittedly pricy tariff for a good, clean copy (and letterboxed to boot).
Francis Ford Coppola’s films frequently focus on male characters, with females often relegated to the sidelines (no football pun intended)—which is why People is such a anomaly; a film that concentrates on a woman who’s going through a metamorphosis, contemplating big changes in her life (searching for an extramarital affair, considering aborting her unborn child) at a time when feature films were often reluctant to tackle such subjects. Natalie is a flawed individual, but Coppola is very sympathetic towards her, even when some of the decisions she makes place others in jeopardy. There are so many things to admire in this movie, particularly Coppola’s use of flashbacks—a technique very reminiscent of the flash-forwards utilized by director Richard Lester in Petulia (1968), which also features actress Knight in a pivotal role. Duvall does a superb job in his small but crucial part, having to be both attractive to Knight and then later on, repulsive (his cop turns out to be an abusive widower who mistreats his daughter [Marya Zimmet] and tells Natalie he cared nothing for his first wife—even though the flashbacks contradict this). As for James Caan, whom I’ve always been a big fan, his turn as the gentle giant “Killer” (he seems harmless, but when Natalie is at the mercy of cop Gordon he tosses him around like a rag doll in a vivid fistfight) is truly a sublime performance.
There’s another reason why People has such a nostalgic pull on me; in the film, Killer mentions to Natalie that a prominent college alum (Tom Aldredge) once told him he had a job waiting for the player if her wanted it—this prompts a side trip to Clarksburg, WV, a town that wasn’t necessarily my stomping ground (my grandparents lived in a little hamlet called Spelter just outside the city, though) but I recognized some of the locations…notably the old Skyline Drive-In on Rt. 19, which was south of Clarksburg. (This is not to be confused with the Sunset Drive-In, located between Clarksburg and Shinnston, and is right next door to the famous Ellis Restaurant.) This scene filmed at this now-defunct drive-in is one of the most uncomfortable in People; the alum fully intends to make good on his offer to Killer but is rebuffed by his hateful daughter (Laura Crews), who dated the player in college but now wants nothing more to do with a man whose mind and future prospects were destroyed that fateful day on the gridiron.
I stated in an earlier post that The Rain People often gets short shrift from its director, who at times seemed embarrassed to have it on his resume; since then, I’ve been contradicted by the film’s entry on the IMDb, which notes that it’s among the top five of Coppola’s favorites amongst his works. I’m perfectly willing to concede that I’m wrong about this but I wouldn’t mind getting confirmation from a source just to satisfy my insatiable curiosity.