Two days ago the Northwest Chicago Film Society screened Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965) at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It was a characteristic choice for the repertory programming organization in that the film provides a window into an overlooked chapter of American movie history—in this case, the career of director Robert Mulligan. Like such other NCFS favorites as Mitchell Leisen, John Cromwell, and André de Toth, Mulligan was a prolific, respected filmmaker in his lifetime but an overlooked one today. (To Kill a Mockingbird remains well-known, but not because Mulligan directed it.) And like those other directors, Mulligan’s filmography doesn’t contain the familiar bells and whistles that readily attract auteurist reevaluations. Yes, Dave Kehr noted in his Reader capsules the consistency of Mulligan’s subjective camerawork and his predilection for “delicate psyche[s] under stress,” but these qualities don’t jump out at casual viewers. Mulligan’s direction, for better and for worse, was often at the service of his screenplays and performers. This is especially true of Baby the Rain Must Fall, in which Mulligan generally defers to Horton Foote’s dialogue and Lee Remick’s Method performance to convey the movie’s themes.
Depending on your point of view, Mulligan was a filmmaker of tremendous lucidity or squarishness. As critic Kent Jones wrote in an excellent Film Comment piece on Mulligan’s western The Stalking Moon (1968):
Mulligan’s background in live television drama cuts two ways. At certain moments, you can feel him pouncing on the emotional subtleties he’s divined in his material, underlining them with cuts and camera movements that, in Fear Strikes Out or Love With the Proper Stranger, feel a little too on the nose, lit for maximum legibility. On the other hand, of all the American directors who came out of live TV, Mulligan was the only one who thought in purely visual terms. . . . There are lengthy passages in many of his films . . . during which you can turn off the sound and follow the action without any diminution of clarity or impact.
I found Baby the Rain Must Fall to be overrun with the kind of “on the nose” moments that Jones mentions. Steve McQueen’s self-sabotaging musician never struck me as anything more or less than an archetype—the creative soul too impulsive and impassioned to fit into normal society—and so I couldn’t believe I was watching an actual person struggle and fail. I suspect this has less to do with Mulligan’s direction than with Foote’s script, which recalls the overearnestness of lesser Arthur Miller. This type of writing seems to have been the dominant mode of early American TV drama, and it seems a perfect expression of the new medium’s sense of obligation to deliver culture to mass audiences. It’s almost poignantly aware of its own seriousness, ticking off Important Themes as if preparing students for a final essay exam. (This school of writing never really went away—we encounter it every year at Oscar season.)
Mulligan, in his respect for writers, can’t transform this material the way a more aggressive director like Elia Kazan might have. Yet he frequently achieves an understated visual beauty that I failed to properly acknowledge in my capsule review. The ranch house where McQueen and Remick try to live, surrounded by an empty field and with no neighbors in sight, conveys the characters’ isolation more succinctly than much of the dialogue does. And he evokes a real claustrophobic dread in the large house where McQueen’s domineering foster mother lives. (In another instance of Mulligan taking directorial cues from his writers, he shot much of Baby the Rain Must Fall in Foote’s hometown of Wharton, Texas.) These locations leave as strong an impression as the courthouse of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Still, Mulligan’s filmmaking was more powerful when he was working with less-straightforward material. As a case in point, check out his other feature of 1965, the movie-land drama Inside Daisy Clover. The script, by former film critic Gavin Lambert, is rife with allusions to Hollywood history (the movie takes place in the 1930s, though it invokes scandals that go back to the silent era) and contains several shocking plot twists. Mulligan’s direction grounds the material, which might have become hysterical or overly cerebral in other hands, in a firm sense of character. Better yet, the straight-ahead presentation of the early scenes gives you no idea how dark the story will get in the second half—in this case, Mulligan’s borderline squarishness proves an excellent poker face.
Daisy Clover (Natalie Wood) is one of the delicate psyches that Kehr mentions. She’s a tomboyish teenage girl living with a mentally ill single mother (Ruth Gordon) in the outskirts of Los Angeles. She gets discovered by a Hollywood talent search, and over the next two years, she is mangled and spat out by the dream factory. As in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, the movie is obsessed with how powerful people might behave behind closed doors. For a movie about celebrity, Inside Daisy Clover features surprisingly few crowd scenes—part of what makes the second half so unnerving is that it creates a sense of imprisonment in a world of plenty. Much of that feeling can be credited to Christopher Plummer’s extraordinary performance as the studio head who treats his stars as expensive properties. Plummer’s scenes demonstrate Mulligan’s collaborative method at its finest, with the nuances of setting, writing, and ensemble acting coalescing into something rich and formidable.