The Rain People (1969)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
With his wiry, jutted-back shoulders, taut physique and busily darting eyes, James Caan is almost always the most alive and mesmerizing thing onscreen whenever he’s there. Nobody occupies space or moves around in it quite like Caan. So it’s a welcome event that the Museum of the Moving Image is paying tribute to the actor in a series that could only have been called The Caan Film Festival, whether you like wordplay or not. One of his earliest serious roles was in this, Hofstra classmate and repeat Caan collaborator Francis Ford Coppola’s fourth feature, a strange, well-directed little road movie about a woman, Natalie (Shirley Knight), who isn’t really feeling her husband nor the fact that she’s two months pregnant, and so sets out on an aimless trek west from Long Island. She soon spots Caan’s Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon on the side of the road and picks him up, obviously hoping for a quick, mind-clearing jock piece of ass. But after some light sub-dom play, Killer’s mental stuntedness, incurred during a football injury and shown in abstract snatches of handheld flashback, reveals itself, and Natalie becomes a reluctant caretaker (who of course receives some needed lessons and warmth in kind). Her repeated attempts to ditch him become farcical, even after she meets a more suitable sidepiece in the form of a flirtatious motorcycle cop played by Robert Duvall, who turns out to have problems of his own (a trigger-happy prepubescent daughter who’s over-fond of brassieres, for one).
Slottable with other sensitive finding-oneself road movies of the era like Wanda, Five Easy Pieces and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Rain People can run a little thin in comparison, at least script-wise, but it directly addresses issues like female domestic dissatisfaction and abortion. The cinematography, by Jaws and The Conversation shooter Bill Butler, is exciting and kinetic, with many fine chopper shots of America’s heartland. Knight gets the ostentatious actorly moments here, particularly two emotional phone calls home to her husband in which she continuously manages to defend her liberated/confused whims. Caan provides the necessarily subtler counterweight; Killer’s something of a schematic holy simpleton on paper, but Caan never tries to make him magical or anything other than a good-hearted kid nursing a codependent crush. You can see the actor considering his decisions in a way the more seasoned Caan later internalized, but it’s pleasurable to watch, and because of his coiled build and carriage, there’s always the thrilling potentiality of violence. Justin Stewart (May 20, 4:30pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “Caan Film Festival”)