Posted by Richard Harland Smith on February 28, 2014
It’s raining in Los Angeles and we’re afraid. Rain does that to us, occurring as it does here so infrequently. Our terra firma is too sun-baked to properly absorb precipitation and there is too much concrete; our storm drains are clogged with leaves and fast food detritus and the rain water pools when it comes down, forming lakes at every intersection and making sluiceways (yes, sluiceways) of the gutters. The natural response of Angelenos to rain is to drive very, very fast, cutting yellow lights in the red and not using turn signals. We can only hope this helps. I am high and dry at the moment and thinking of some of my favorite rain scenes in movies because, as film lovers do, when real life intrudes I go to the movies…
Rain seems to be the perfect complement to crime movies, and it has always been so. Think of the bank robbery in Fritz Lang’s YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937), which was repurposed by Max Nosseck in DILLINGER (1945) and referenced — at least I think so — by Jean-Pierre Melville in the opening frames of UN FLIC (1972). I’ll bring up other examples later but one of the best uses of rain as a symbol of redemption or, more literally, a kind of spiritual cleansing is in William Wellman’s THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931). James Cagney uses the cover of a torrential downpour to exact revenge on the rivals who tried to bump him off and who in fact killed his best friend. I can’t say that Cagney’s character knows this is the beginning of the end for him but he has reached, I think we can all agree, that turning point where he no longer cares how much money he can make… he’s just showing up to settle accounts.
The climactic battle of Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) also takes place during a real toad strangler, as a ragtag squadron of mercenary swordsmen put themselves between poor farmers and a small army of rural bandits. It’s a brilliant, beautiful, invigorating, and all together heartbreaking setpiece, with Kurosawa alternating between sustained, traveling shots and quick cuts that cause the viewer to tense up and release, tense up and release, with the ankle-deep mud forming from the downpour serving as a symbol of bloodshed. We tend to remember this battle as being more bloody than it really is.
The rain never lets up in Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (1982) but it’s the ending that really sticks in the mind, bringing together protagonist (Harrison Ford) and antagonist (Rutger Hauer) in a moment of unexpected understanding and empathy. I’ve always felt that Hauer’s final speech (“All these moments will be lost…in time… like tears in rain…”) is a little on-the-nose in this moment because the images tell it all. (Am I crazy or does Hauer sort of apologize to the camera/Ford for the preciousness of this line with that dying smile?). I also wish Scott had dialed Vangellis’ score down to zero during this scene because I think the sound of the falling rain is all the accompaniment we need. But, hey, I still love the scene, all my Monday morning quarterbacking notwithstanding.
Heartbreak is also to be had in this scene from Abel Ferrara’s KING OF NEW YORK (1990), whose accumulation of tragedy upon tragedy is Shakespearean in its unapologetic excess. (At a question and answer session after the film’s premiere, the first remark from the press was “This film is an abomination…”) Well, anyway. Here, cops David Caruso and Wesley Snipes take on crime czar Christopher Walken’s top gunman Laurence Fishburne as the sky rains punishment upon the prideful.
Rain plays a pivotal role in a key scene from the 1998 South Korean crime thriller NOWHERE TO HIDE. Director Myeong-se Lee stages an assassination scene midway up Inchon’s 40 Steps as an autumn rain catches the city by surprise, scattering leaves and salarymen in every direction as everybody tries to take cover. Well, not quite everybody. Keeping a sentinel’s eye on the steps is a cool career criminal Chang (Ahn Sung-kee), whose target is a rival drug lord/legitimate businessman who stands under an awning, hoping to wait out the downpour. The target finally makes his move, popping his little umbrella just as Chang steps up with a short sword pulled. Chang slashes viciously and with lightning speed; as the victim reaches to pick up his fallen umbrella he does not even know that he is dying. Meanwhile the rain is pounding down and, best of all, this entire scene is all underscored by the Bee Gees’ “Holiday.” I kid you not. A wonderful, sensual, painterly scene full of moments and pauses and breaths that sets the rest of this relentless film in motion.
Blasphemous though it may be for a cinephile to admit but I like William Friedkin’s 1977 WAGES OF FEAR (1953) remake SORCERER more than I do the Henri-Georges Clouzot original. Mind you, we’re talking “by degrees” but still, I do prefer it because the seemingly impenetrable, inescapable, and all together unforgiving South American jungle comes so much more to life for me in the remake than it does in the black-and-white Clouzot film. The best scene in SORCERER is when the protagonists — mercenaries recruited to truck nitroglycerin cross country to extinguish an oil rig fire — must cross a river via a dodgy suspension bridge. I don’t want to get all academic and Bosley Crowtherish but this has got to be one of the most, if not the most, ass-clenchingly tense bits of cinematic business in the history of both movies and ass clenching. The scene is staged well enough not to need the addition of inclement weather but the extra layer does add another level to the scene, as if the exhausted, terrified anti-heroes seeking redemption are being punished for thinking “At least it’s not raining.”
Nominally a horror film, Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) feels at its end more closely akin to THE PUBLIC ENEMY in the way it uses a rainstorm as a cover for the protagonists to exact an awful revenge on villainess Olga Baclanova. The visual of the sideshow performers, loyal to imperiled dwarf Hans (Harry Earles), crawling on their bellies — some of them don’t have much more than bellies to crawl on — is an indelible one, evoking a Whitman’s Sampler of emotions in the review, of fear, of pride (they are good, good friends), and of revulsion. Reminded at every turn of how far short they fall of the presumed apex of humanity, the freaks go to ground to settle Baclanova’s hash, looking all the while like the fragile invertebrates who first wriggled out of the primordial brine to establish a shaky sovereignty on dry land. Thanks to my friend Chad Plambeck for reminding me about this one.
The skies are overcast above Northfield, Minnesota as the Younger-James gang rides into town to rob the bank in Philip Kaufman’s THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID (1972). Before the first shots are fired, those same skies open up full bore and we know, instinctively, how this day is going to end. This wonderful, often creepy revisionist western isn’t out to change our perception of history so much as our feeling for how people lived, what they thought, how they thought, and how poorly aligned expectation was to result. Today would be a great day to watch any of these movies.
What are your own favorite rain scenes?
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