Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Hatful of Rain (20th Century-Fox, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

A Hatful of Rain was a movie I had high hopes for, but it was a major disappointment. It started life as a stage play, a breast-beating drama about a Korean War veteran who’s so severely injured in the war that he spends nine months in the hospital recovering after he’s discharged and is given so much morphine that when he’s released he finds himself addicted — like Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi and Edith Piaf, all of whom started using opiates medicinally and ended up “hooked” — and soon is in hock to a gang of unsavory street dealers. The original play was written by Michael V. Gazzo (which probably explains why the central characters are all Italian-Americans living a proletarian existence in New York City) and the stage production featured Ben Gazzara as Johnny Pope, the addict; Shelley Winters as his wife Celia; and Anthony Franciosa (the future Mr. Shelley Winters) as Johnny’s brother Polo (that’s right: not Paul, not Paolo, but Polo!). If this trio sounds familiar it’s because Gazzo was pretty obviously ripping off The Lost Weekend — a central addict character and his brother and lover as his enablers — with heroin instead of booze (though the angst of having to take care of his brother has turned Polo into a pretty brutal alcoholic himself, saddling the family with two big-time substance abusers).

TCM showed this as part of a festival dedicated to Method actors in film, though the only real Method performers in the movie are Franciosa, repeating his stage role, and Eva Marie Saint taking the part of Celia. What makes the Method designation more ironic is that the plot is precipitated by the sudden arrival of John Pope, Sr., father of Johnny and Polo, from Palm Beach, Florida — where he’s about to graduate from being a bartender to buying his own bar — to New York to pick up the $2,500 Polo is supposed to have saved for him, which he needs to complete his deal. John, Sr. — who insists throughout the movie on being called “Pop” — is played by old Hollywood pro Lloyd Nolan, and he makes mincemeat out of the Method crew in every scene he’s in, winning the acting competition from this film hands down. The film was produced by Buddy Adler and directed by Fred Zinnemann for 20th Century-Fox — the two had previously worked together on From Here to Eternity for Columbia (also with a major Method star, Montgomery Clift), but the magic didn’t come together this time.

Part of the problem with A Hatful of Rain is it’s simply a horrific downer; there aren’t any characters you can relate to or even like — Johnny, aside from being a drug addict (which, given his circumstances, you can forgive him for) comes off as a helpless idiot; Polo as someone barely in control of his own addictions as well as his emotions; Celia as a woman who’s so overbearing and obnoxious one would think that if her husband hadn’t already been a substance abuser, her constant carping at him would have turned him into one; and Pop, despite his status as the most sympathetic of the bunch — we want him to succeed and do his deal and we feel his anguish when he realizes that Polo has spent the $2,500 and it’s all gone into Johnny’s arm — himself is such a nag, and reacts to Johnny’s revelation with such insane machismo (his first instinct is to find someone to blame so he can attack them), we don’t really like him either. The film is stolen by Nolan, and also by the villains of the piece — Henry Silva (also a carryover from the stage cast) as “Mother,” the principal drug dealer who supplies Johnny; and his confederates, Gerald S. O’Loughlin as “Chuch” and William Hickey as “Apples” (the indication is that Mother is the only one of the trio who’s not a user himself, and Hickey’s so slight of build and has such an improbably squeaky voice he seems to be channeling Jerry Lewis) — who manage to create an impression of terror every time they appear.

They actually provide some vitality into a movie that’s otherwise way too depressing to be particularly entertaining — the sense of struggle we got in The Man with the Golden Arm is absent here, as is the promise, implicit in that film, The Lost Weekend and virtually all other genuinely good addiction films, that the central character can look forward to a better life if he can just get himself off the stuff. Part of the problem with this movie is the actor they picked to play Johnny — Don Murray, the almost impassive hunk who did so much to weaken the film Bus Stop (and took away from Marilyn Monroe’s masterly performance in that film) and is equally weak here, stumbling and fumbling around in a part that really required James Dean — even though not only was Dean dead by the time this film was made, but because of clashing contracts he probably wouldn’t have been able to do it even if he had still been alive.

Murray does his level best to look like a Method actor — he seems to think that if he hangs his head down a lot and mumbles his lines, he’ll pass — but it doesn’t work, and while Eva Marie Saint is a superior performer the role gives her absolutely nothing to work with — neither the crack-brained innocence she played in On the Waterfront nor the sexual sophisticate of her role in North by Northwest. A Hatful of Rain is the sort of movie you want to like — it’s clearly coming from a good place and the intentions behind it are noble — but it just won’t cooperate.