Raintree County, 1957. 7/10

Great cinematography in a period romantic drama. Raintree County contains some Garden of Eden folklore; as Montegomery Clift’s John makes finding its mythical raintree his goal.

An interesting premise, a tale close to the Brothers Grimm. Fairhaven, as its name implies, is the idyllic hometown for Clift, Lee Marvin, Eva Marie Saint, and Nigel Patrick. Marvin’s ‘Flash’ and Patrick’s Professor are larger-than-life characters not far from the Johnny Appleseed mold that the townspeople invoke as the raintree’s founder.

Eva Marie Saint’s Nell plays an angelic love interest for John; but Elizabeth Taylor’s Susanna pretty much spikes the punch by seducing John away from Nell. She’s everything that Nell, and, by extension, most of the rest of the town is not: Southern, wealthy, and manipulative. Nell never really lets go of John, though.

Taylor does a great job as the manic-depressive Southern belle; John finds himself spellbound by her. Her fake pregnancy doesn’t seem to bother him much, although her obsession with dolls; in particular the hideously half-burned one, does give him pause. She seems so bent on keeping skeletons in the closet that she believes the gossip about her mixed-race parentage.

Ironically, as John later discovers, she knows that the black woman Henrietta isn’t her mother. It’s as though she wants to disappoint or compromise John by keeping the rumors alive. Nothing good seems to happen in the South. Aside from the surprises, deceptions, and evasions facing John there, the war makes it literally hostile.

One part of the war sequence didn’t work. Since both sides were allowed to recruit regiments locally, so John would likely run into ‘Flash’; and he’s certainly going to end up in one of the Union Army’s campaigns in the South. But the odds of him just happening upon Susanna’s family’s plantation is infinitesimal. Admittedly, that bunch of scenes tidies up the plot.

Finding Susanna in the asylum after the war was a scary bit. Their subsequent return to Fairhaven had the odd effect of miraculously ‘curing’ Susanna. But not for long. There’s a puzzling scene at John’s house as Nell tries to convince John to get into politics, while Susanna stands by passively.

That lays the groundwork for Susanna’s disappearance into the swamp; it’s as though she realizes that John will never be happy with her. She kills herself to let Nell have him after all. As a bonus, John finds his missing son under the fall foliage of the actual raintree.

This movie is great to look at. As others have noted, though, without Marvin, Patrick, and Taylor, most of the acting falls somewhat flat. That contributes to a tone problem. Some scenes, such as at the asylum and at the party (where the guy dons blackface to mock the freed slaves), are powerful and disturbing. But most of the Fairhaven and swamp excursion scenes seem to be in another world; and when we see the Professor or ‘Flash’ we know that something harmless is coming.

The tranquility-disturbed-by-chaos theme would work better if Clift’s character wasn’t so guileless. Nothing seems to jar him out of his odd sense of detachment. He’s never wholly in the Raintree world or Susanna’s world. I realize that Clift had a real-life trauma during the time of the movie’s filming. But even in early scenes, presumably shot before his accident, he seems a bit dazed. As far as Taylor’s character goes, I couldn’t figure out the point of the dolls; the burned one had meaning for her, but the hoard of other dolls isn’t really explained. I guess we’re to assume that she’s stuck emotionally at her age at the time of the fire.

Despite these loose ends, Raintree County is worth spending time with; the song is as beguiling as Fairhaven itself. 7/10.

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