On The Rainmaker

24Jan08

As we watch the first few minutes of The Rainmaker (some fifty years after its release, in 1956), we are impatient and judgmental; the set is generic Hollywood Western, while the men in the family — a father and his two sons — come off as caricatures (stern older brother, mischievous younger, wise dad). Even Katherine Hepburn (the sister — Lizzie — on the verge of becoming an old maid) seems at once too book-smart and too docile to be believed. The movie feels dated and two-dimensional, and even the Technicolor blue of the open sky seems less panoramic than garish; it makes us want to turn away, as if we were embarrassed by such an earnest, overreaching display.

But just as we are about to check the time, we become intrigued by Burt Lancaster; in the early scenes, he too was unimpressive, merely a con artist somewhat preposterously hawking “tornado vanes” before he is run out of town by the authorities. When he first meets our drought-stricken (but not exactly suffering) family, we are as eager as Lizzie to dismiss him, for we understand that there’s no way he’s going to bring rain, and any money spent on his services might as well be thrown to the wind. Similarly, we see Lancaster as little more than a big Hollywood-handsome lout who we feel sure will eventually win over Lizzie and then — because this is the 1950s — settle down and have a family. Yawn.

Except what’s the deal with that red scarf he has tied around his neck? And what about his black shirt? Although we’re usually not moved by this sort of thing, we begin to notice how nicely fitted it is — it’s basically painted on — and how he doesn’t even flinch when he spills half a glass of water down the front, so for a second his chest glistens under the light. His unwavering intensity is almost freakish — yet disturbingly familiar — and so we can’t stop watching. As for Lizzie, she too begins to exert more influence, and we are increasingly moved by her plight (which is much more complicated than we had initially been led to believe by her shallow brothers); we even wonder why she won’t give in to the Lancaster charm to which we have already proven so susceptible.

The movie continues; as the brothers and the father bumble around the town, we suddenly understand that they are meant to be two-dimensional; they are symbols of three competing elements in American society — the scornful, the idealistic and the resigned — and it is against this backdrop that we watch the relationship between Lizzie and Starbuck (Lancaster) unfold, knowing that as outsiders they must come to terms with each other and the society around them. This is a complicated proposition, and Hepburn and Lancaster never make it anything but, so that their exchanges are filled with mounting desire, frustration — and not just with each other — and regret. Most incredibly the plot stays equally true to this conflict right up to the very end, when even as the rain comes pouring down, there are no easy answers for any of them. Or for that matter us; suddenly we understand that we too have been conned by The Rainmaker, but in the best way possible.

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