Steve McQueen readily admitted he didn't think much of the acting profession he had chosen. It was a job to him, plain and simple, one that he obviously had a talent for but also one he never really embraced as being a legitimate job or occupation. Well, whether he admitted it or not, McQueen was an incredible presence on screen. Critics said he often played the same character -- what successful movie star can't that tag be applied to? -- but as a defender of McQueen, I've yet to come across a part of his that didn't have something to recommend.
To be fair, McQueen did perfect the part of the quiet, loner anti-hero who just doesn't fit in with society and its norms. This formula worked in big blockbusters like The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven and more character-driven stories like The Sand Pebbles (nonetheless an epic) and Papillon. Early in the 1960s after his star-making part as Cooler King Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape, McQueen made a point of doing different parts and not being typecast as one specific kind of action actor/star. So over two years, he made three movies -- none of which have been remembered well -- including 1965's Baby the Rain Must Fall.
Making the long bus trip across Texas with her young daughter, Georgette Thomas (Lee Remick) is on her way to find her husband who she hasn't seen in years. Henry Thomas (McQueen) is a recent parolee from the state penitentiary looking for a clean slate in life and fully embraces his wife and daughter's return. He dives right into making their lives better, renting a house to live in and looking to take night classes and get a degree. At the same time though, Henry has this dream of selling his country/western songs and hitting it big, becoming the next Elvis Presley. Georgette is on his side supporting him all the way, but Henry's past demons from a difficult childhood start to emerge, making an already difficult task nearly impossible.
Director Robert Mulligan crafts an intriguing story here that has drawn comparisons to the stories and plays of Tennessee Williams. Intriguing doesn't always translate to interesting though. Filming in black and white, Mulligan makes what looks like a 1960s version of The Grapes of Wrath. With his Texas locations, there is a sparseness, an emptiness to the story. Big wide open stretches of land with the wind blowing by with nothing to stop it. The story is focused on Henry and Georgette and a handful of supporting characters, and it is always grounded in a very human, very realistic way. All said though, it's too bleak, too dark with no real hope of a peaceful resolution. You know before it starts that this is going to have a tragic ending, you just don't HOW exactly it's going to go down.
As a fan of McQueen, I'll admit that I'd watch the man read a phone book, sure that he would put some unique spin on his reading. His Henry Thomas character is one of his more underrated parts and is generally unknown thanks to the film's epic tanking in theaters. A good jumping off point is that from the start, McQueen makes Henry a very likable character. You're rooting for him to hit it big, become a star. In preparing for his part, he uses a lot of his own personal experiences from his own checkered past and troubled childhood to really get to know the character. As Henry devolves into a shell of himself, it's startling to watch the transformation. It is uncomfortable watching it at times as McQueen brings a ton of intensity to the performance. This isn't as iconic as Hilts gunning his motorcycle across the countryside or Det. Bullitt racing through the streets of San Francisco, but it proves without a doubt that McQueen was a great actor...if there was ever any question.
In a part that could have been overshadowed by McQueen's powerful performance, Lee Remick more than stands her own as Henry's wife, Georgette. Remick's looks definitely play into the character, but for the better. She is this extremely thin blonde young woman who looks like a stiff wind could knock her over. Add in her girl next door looks and a Texas drawl, and you figure you've got this character pegged. You'd be wrong. Her Georgette has lived for years as a single mother (a great mother at that) and is as tough as they come. She's not going to let anyone or anything slow her down. Add in her obvious chemistry with McQueen, and you've got quite a pair in the lead roles. Also starring are Paul Fix as the town judge, Don Murray as the local deputy who grew up with Henry and knows his past, and young Kimberly Block in her only acting performance as Margaret Rose, the Thomas' daughter.
One other complaint, but it's a pretty bad one. McQueen plays a country singer with one major problem; McQueen couldn't sing a lick. Anytime Henry sings, we see McQueen lip-synching to the lyrics, but it's clearly someone else singing. The voices just don't match up. Check one example out HERE. It completely takes you out of the flow of the movie, and these scenes can be painful to watch. Still, McQueen and Remick are great leads, and that's the main reason to check out this forgotten flick from the 1960s.
Baby the Rain Must Fall <---trailer (1965): ** 1/2 /****