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Rain (Lewis Milestone, 1932)


    Lewis Milestone’s Rain, tightly adapted from a play that was in turn adapted from W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “Miss Thompson”, stands as a corrosive assault on Christian hypocrisy and a surprisingly frank excursion into the early sound era’s limits of perversity. The prostitute and the preacher, cornerstones of many of Hollywood’s melodramatic morality lessons, are each in archetypical form in this tale of waylaid redemption and stranded souls. Joan Crawford and Walter Huston, as the prostitute and preacher respectively, act out their roles with a peculiar brand of exaggerated energy that somehow transforms into genuine intensity somewhere along the way. Because Crawford is never quite convincing when she’s trying to be hard-edged, her eventual conversion is all the more affecting. Her Sadie Thompson doesn’t make us believe that she’s really a bad girl, and as a result, the pressures thrust upon her by Huston’s domineering Davidson feel more questionable, even if the full extent of her past sins are never made clear. This Sadie seems equally lost at every point during the movie, no matter what set of virtues she’s trying to achieve, and that only adds to her despairing aura, no matter what the desired effect of the performance might have been. In almost every scene, Crawford’s exceptionally technical approach to acting makes her an interloper among a cast of more naturalistic players. Huston is afforded a less explicitly detailed character arc than Crawford, and has to relay his spiritual conversion not through costume changes and body language, but instead mostly in two extended close-up shots near the end of the film.


    Milestone, for his part, tries his hardest to shake off Rain’s roots as a play. The camera is constantly moving, and even when there’s a series of static shots and counter-shots between the two leads, the images suggest a coupling between them. The film has a visual verisimilitude not usually associated with early sound cinema, with plenty of stock footage present to help to evoke the setting. The South Seas atmosphere is always tangible, with the drums of the natives and the splattering sound of the rain frequently supporting the images. Still, the confines of the studio set grow increasingly claustrophobic as tensions rise throughout the movie, and reach a startling peak in the film’s finale, in which a lingering shot of a closed door creates a huge amount of suspense. Rain builds to a tragic climax that is somewhat predictable, but it loses little of its power despite that. The film, even years later, remains a fascinating critique of the somewhat hypocritical social mores of its Hays-era production, while it deftly stays within the boundaries of acceptable subject matter.




Jeremy Heilman