A thrilling chase movie, an affecting romance, an anti-war statement, a rousing action picture, and a sturdy drama about drugs and addiction, Karl Reisz’s 1978 film Who’ll Stop the Rain is a film that would never get made in today’s Hollywood studio system. It effortlessly blended multiple genres into a complicated, provocative mix, and it’s a film that I’ve viewed a few times this year after not being familiar with it. Released as the Vietnam war was coming to a close, it’s a work that boldly explored the fresh societal wounds that were still raw and exposed after a decade of fighting, and the power that the film ultimately achieves extends to any number of sequences that may feel jumbled together at times, but finally coalesces into something unique and satisfying and distinctly 70’s in feeling, atmosphere, and style. Reisz, a Czech-born British filmmaker with an interesting array of credits which included The Gambler with James Caan and The French Lieutenant’s Woman with Meryl Steep and Jeremy Irons, weaves this compelling film via an intricate narrative which was based on the Robert Stone novel Dog Soldiers, and adapted by Stone himself and screenwriter Judith Rascoe (Havana, Endless Love). When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, it screened under the novel’s original title, but the studio later changed it due to fears that the public wouldn’t be interested in a “war” film so close to the end of Vietnam, and also probably to cash in on the popularity of the Credence Clear Water Revival smash hit that plays repeatedly throughout the film.
With the war waging on, a jaded and tired war journalist named John Converse (a sweaty, paranoid, thoroughly excellent Michael Moriarty) crosses paths with an old buddy, a Marine named Ray Hicks (Nick Nolte, fresh off The Deep, here making his first big attempt as a serious dramatic leading man in a feature film after years in the TV trenches), and asks him if he’ll help smuggle heroin from the jungles of Vietnam to the streets of San Francisco. A one time score, get rich, get quick, screw the Government. Hicks will meet up with Converse’s wife, Marge (Tuesday Weld, terrific), make the drugs/cash exchange, and be on his way. But when Hicks shows up to meet Marge, he discovers that she’s been popping pills while her husband has been overseas, and before long, Hicks realizes that he’s being followed by a pair of goons (Richard Masur and Ray Sharkey) who are either connected to Converse or to the drug suppliers. Hicks and Marge form an unlikely partnership with the potential for unexpected romance, and the two of them hit the road just as they become pursued by a corrupt DEA agent played by Anthony Zerbe. Marge suffers withdrawl as she becomes cut off from her pill stash; it’s then that Hicks decides to use some of the heroin to ease Marge out of her volatile state. After a series of action sequences and chases, Converse re-appears in the story, and the film climaxes with an elaborate shoot-out. The film’s final moments are tough and sad in the ways that the best films from the 70’s were. And the Neal Cassady connection to author Stone informs the story in many ways which make it an even richer experience in retrospect.
While well respected critically at the time of its release, Who’ll Stop the Rain failed to garner attention from the Academy, though it was up for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Nolte was nominated for Best Actor by the National Society of Film Critics, and the writing team of Stone and Rascoe were nominated by the Writer’s Guild. Probably a bit to topical and angry with the war still a sensitive topic during the late 70’s, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it wasn’t a smash at the box office (it’s final dollar performance is underreported on-line). But what makes the film so spectacular was the way that Reisz infused all of the elements with a sense of realism and purpose, never focusing too hard on one aspect, and allowing all of the pieces to naturally come together. The big action set-pieces are extremely well handled, and the final moments are appropriately heartbreaking. Nolte is sensational, giving an animalistic performance in the prime of his on-screen youth, his voice nowhere near total gravel just yet, with his wild hair swinging one way this minute and the other the next. He had terrific chemistry with Weld, who had the right combo of sass and class, sexy but seemingly approachable, and damaged in a way that cries out for help. And Moriarty cuts a convincing portrait of a man so crushed by war that he feels the need to take action for himself, despite the potentially deadly consequences. Who’ll Stop the Rain is a film that I can’t wait to explore again and again, as it gives off the fumes of great films from the past (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre kept coming to mind) and seems like a precursor to many action dramas that would lead the way in the 80’s, films that would mix topical action with relatable themes of heroism, sacrifice, and sorrow.