Fear Strikes Out (1957): Robert Mulligan's Amazing Debut
Robert Mulligan’s Fear Strikes Out (1957) is my favorite movie about baseball. It’s absorbing, it’s entertaining, it's heartbreaking, it’s inspirational, but it’s also a massive bat swing to the head. It knocks down any sentimental notions we may have once had about baseball, and puts in their place a vision as dark and intense as any sports film I can remember. It was the original Raging Bull. It was the first great portrait of an athlete’s American Dream gone mad. Although it finally allows us a glimmer of hope at the end, we have to get there by first journeying down into the fiery pits of a baseball player’s worst nightmare.
This was Mulligan's first film. Why was he hired to direct it? Consider his background: a former priest, former Marine, former Times editor, former director for television. Doesn't sound like a man who was even remotely interested in making a movie about the life of Red Sox player Jim Piersall. And certainly not like a man who would go so far as to portray Piersall as a badly wounded soul; a howling animal stuck in the middle of a game he cannot win. But that is exactly the kind of film that Mulligan and his future producing partner, Alan J. Pakula, set out to make.
If Sam Wood’s The Pride of the Yankees (1942) was about a man who loved baseball, then Fear Strikes Out is about a man who absolutely hates baseball. Jim Piersall is a relatively good player, but baseball takes its toll on him, and it very nearly costs him his life. Who could Mulligan and Pakula possibly cast in such a demanding role? They needed an actor who could convey a variety of tormented emotions, obviously, but they needed more than that, too. They were going to need an actor who was mysterious. Somebody who wouldn’t spell everything out in portraying Piersall. Somebody who would keep us guessing, keep us in constant question over this most polarizing figure in the world of sports.
I can only imagine the raised eyebrows of the executives at Paramount when Mulligan and Pakula decided on Anthony Perkins. Perkins had only made two films at the time—one with George Cukor, one with William Wyler—and was hardly a box office draw, let alone a household name. One thing’s for sure: the real Jim Piersall wasn’t too happy about the casting decision, and he made it no secret of his distaste when he heard that a “fag” was going to be playing him in a movie about his life. But Perkins emerges from Fear Strikes Out with a sensational performance of boiling anguish. Throughout the film, he is at war with himself. He stutters. He yells. He repeats himself. He fights. He thrashes. He screams. "Tony lived his role," Mulligan later commented, "and his tortures were real." There is no doubt that Alfred Hitchcock must have walked out of the theater knowing he had found his Norman Bates.
The movie begins with a scene from Piersall’s childhood. Piersall’s father, John (Karl Malden) a union steward, comes home complaining about an argument he had at work. His wife (Perry Wilson) is a good-natured but sickly woman who refuses to get check-ups. “I don’t want you to have to go away again,” John tells her. Is this an indication that there is a history of mental illness in the Piersall family? Indeed, in a later scene, when Piersall goes ice-skating one night and shows up at home with a broken ankle (effectively limiting his ability to slide on the field), his father is so petrified that he faints. Either his parents are overly sensitive or they both have serious health problems—either way, it will affect Jim’s own health when he grows up.
The filmmakers are more interested in Jim’s uneasy relationship with his father. The real Jim Piersall criticized Mulligan’s film for supposedly putting too much of the blame on his father—even though, in his own autobiography, Piersall did indicate that his father was the main cause of his mental illness and nervous breakdowns. In that beginning scene, when John Piersall walks outside to play a game of catch with the young Jim (Peter J. Votrian), we get our first glimpse of the father’s sincere but controlling parenting: he throws the ball so hard that at one point, when Jim misses the ball and has to run behind a shack to get it, he takes advantage of this brief moment of privacy to pause, take his bruised hand out of the glove and cry, before heading out, throwing the ball and facing his father again. We realize that this game of catch has been a forced effort to raise him to be a good ballplayer, rather than a mutual game of catch between father and son.
“The Boston Red Sox,” John Piersall says to his wife. “That’s where Jim’s going.” But the father is so committed to this risky longterm goal—to getting his son to play for the Red Sox and guarantee all of them a lifetime’s supply of wealth and happiness—that he pushes Jim hard throughout his childhood and adolescent years, even going so far as refusing to congratulate his son after winning games. “Dad, we made it! Huh?” says Jim (now played by Perkins) after he helps his team win. “Yeah,” replies the father, “you made it… with luck, you made it. That was a good enough game for high school. But you weren’t on your toes the whole time, and you know it.” It’s such an unfair, preposterous lecture that when Jim retreats to the showers, he has to take a handful of pills from the first-aid kit on the wall, drink from the shower faucets and run his head under the water, hiding himself from his own shame.
Every time Jim and his father part, his father says the same thing: “Next year, the Red Sox!” It’s like this is a line that runs in the family, and we can sense that it’s been conditioned in Jim’s mind ever since he was a child. “We’re on our way, Jim”, his father tells him, after they receive a letter from Red Sox scouts who are interested to see him play. “Big leagues, big money, everything you’ve ever dreamed about.” But is Jim living his own dreams, or his father’s dreams? One day his father is giving him warm speeches like this, the next day he’s at a game trying to hit the ball and impress the scouts, while his father is over his shoulder roaring in his ear, “We’ve got to show them you can hit! Now, you’ve GOT TO GET YOUR HIT!” If, in The Pride of the Yankees, Lou Gehrig’s mother was completely resistant to her son’s wish of becoming a baseball player, then, in Fear Strikes Out, the father is so determined to make his son a baseball player that he almost turns him into one against his wishes. Both films are based on true stories.
Mulligan works from a screenplay by Ted Berkman and Raphael Blau that puts strong emphasis, especially, on the affliction that is spawned from the Piersall father/son relationship. Sometimes it takes a kinder form, as when, after being signed by the Red Sox and being sent to Scranton for training, Jim meets the lovely nurse Mary (Norma Moore) during a game—after she’s nearly hit by a ball. Jim falls for her immediately, but has an odd way of showing it; he shows up at her door uninvited, sets bags of groceries on her counter and creepily explains that he found her apartment after calling her hospital and claiming to be her brother. Normally a girl would be repelled by this type of behavior, but she is amused by his timid insistence to cook dinner for her and change her evening plans. “I’m very tired of eating at the restaurants out here all the time, aren’t you?" he asks her. "And you won’t have to do… anything! I’ll cook it all by myself; I’m a very good cook! I’m practically a chef!” He even thought to buy her ice cream for dessert, and orders her to put it in the icebox “right now” (her deadpan response: “Oh… yes, sir!”). An awkward first date? You bet. But out of it, true love emerges.
One of the film’s strengths is that the relationship between Jim and Mary is not the kind of conventional relationship you only see in the movies. It’s convincing, even though it has many odd moments. Consider Jim’s strange way of proposing marriage to her: he at first upsets her by telling her there’s “no way” they could possibly live with Jim’s parents under the same roof of the same poor house his family has always lived in, and then breaks the ice by telling her he doesn’t care, and wants to marry her anyway. Mary is not one of those tiresome movie wives who complains that her husband is too committed to work. Observe her calm demeanor during another one of Jim’s furious tirades after a day of spring training. He is rambling about his father putting pressure on him: “Every week a report goes up to Boston—how I’m running up bases, how I’m feeling, how I’m hitting… there’s only 15 games left, Mary! I’ve gotta make his showing there!” She listens to him. She assures him that his father must mean well. Then his father shows up right then and there.
We know, as Mulligan does, that although Mary’s marriage to Jim is one glimmer of light in his life, it can only be a matter of time before it will stop being an effective consolation in a moment of panic. Jim is like a bottle of shaken soda slowly building up pressure. He goes to his hotel room after proposing to Mary, and then throws a fit when he hears a radio broadcast about himself in the next room; he busts a crack in the adjoining door, and were it not for a telephone call from Mary that interrupts his fury it is very likely he would have broken the door down and strangled whoever it is that has turned up the radio so loud.
More problems. Mary gives birth to a baby daughter, and the Piersalls are all overjoyed; Jim even declares that they’re going to need a new house, and his parents find one right away. But on the day when they’re all set to move in, Jim, out of nowhere, puts his foot down. Mulligan gives us a wonderful shot of Mary’s reflection in the mirror while she is packing, while Jim talks on the other side of the mirror and develops second thoughts. He refuses to move in to the new house. Mary is confused, and turns off the light. This is where Haskell Bogg’s cinematography really shines: we see shadows forming across Jim’s face, as he is seething in anger. Oddly enough, Mary is more upset about Jim’s behavior than his father, who is surprisingly content with Jim’s decision not to move in. “Eh, it’s his nerves,” he explains.
There are other scenes where we get a glimpse of Jim’s downfall, after Red Sox manager Cronin (Bart Burns) finally hires Jim and has him start the season with the Sox—but, to Jim’s horror, playing in the Infield instead of the Outfield and, worst of all, playing short-stop, which Jim knows nothing about. One scene has Jim walking into the empty stadium alone to practice short-stop, and as Mulligan’s camera swerves around and Elmer Bernstein’s music builds with tension, we can sense how nervous Jim is. Another scene has Jim coming home, panicking to his father and to Mary, and then running off into the night and hiding behind some bleachers; when his father gets him to snap out of it, they have a moment of laughter, but Jim is obviously still very afraid. Other scenes have him fighting with his fellow players and getting kicked out of games; when Mary tries to calm him down in the locker room, he goes on a tirade against the whole team in which he stutters (“Y-y-you came to see me? W-w-well how come?”), repeats sentences (“he won’t let me play—he won’t let me play!”), and even suspects Mary of turning against him. But none of this quite prepares us for the most disturbing sequence in the entire film. After hitting a home run, Jim looks to the crowd for support, but all they can do is yell at him—enraging him to the point where he jumps on the fence, threatens his teammates with bats, and then goes absolutely berserk before being brought to the ground by police, teammates and coaches. It is a terrifying scene.
This lands Jim in the asylum, but nothing cures him, not even electroshock. “I don’t understand the things I do,” he confides to his doctor, Brown (Adam Williams). Brown has to go through several unsuccessful sessions with Jim before figuring out the source of his troubles. Brown suggests that maybe his father is the reason for his breakdown. Jim fiercely defends his father: “I wanted to do good for him… I owe him something, don’t I?” “You have a little girl, Jim,” Brown observes. “Would you like her to grow up thinking she owed you something?” This is what really causes Jim to snap. Still sticking up for his father, he declares, “if it hadn’t been for him, standing behind me and pushing me and driving me, I wouldn’t be where I am today!” And this is what perfectly underlines the brilliance of Berkman and Blau’s screenplay; the line has a double-meaning, and Jim, to his horror, realizes it instantly. Certainly he wouldn’t be a baseball player if it wasn’t for his father. Maybe he wouldn’t be in a mental institution, either. And when John Piersall does come to the asylum and attempt to bring his son home against his will, Jim is ready for him.
“All my life, I’ve been splitting my gut to please you, and I never could,” he cries to his father’s astonished face. “No matter what I do, it’s not enough. You’re killing me.” He hugs his dad and pounds him: “You don’t care about me—you never gave a damn! Win, Jimmy, win, that’s all you ever cared about! And you’re killing me… you’ve been killing me for years—yes, you have—and it’s too much. I can’t give you anymore. I’ve got nothing left to give.”
Scenes like this demonstrate that Fear Strikes Out, apart from being a work of tremendous writing and direction, is also a work of splendid, splendid acting. Norma Moore takes what could have been the thankless housewife role and turns it instead into a wonderful part. Williams has a smaller role as the doctor, but makes every scene count, and we believe him when he tells John Piersall that his son isn’t ready to talk to him, or even see him.
Of Karl Malden, one can only preach to the choir in elaborating on his incomparable strengths as an actor. He continued to follow up his Academy-Award winning performance in A Streetcar Named Desire and with more great performances in other films like Kazan’s On the Waterfront and Baby Doll, and in Jewison’s The Cincinatti Kid. In Fear Strikes Out he plays the character of the elder Piersall not as a one-dimensional monster, but as a flawed, conflicted figure who can be both loving and monstrous. Notice the scene that follows Jim’s confrontation with his father: Malden goes home, walks under the porch stairs, and weeps. This man honestly did not realize just how hard he was pushing his son, and for once we can sympathize with him. But when Jim recovers, his relationship with his father is restored by another game of catch; Haskell Boggs photographs the moment so that Jim is the predominant figure in the shot, standing tall above his father. He is in control of his own life now.
And Perkins. He was one of the finest American actors we ever had. The last scene in Fear Strikes Out is a joyous moment; it’s sentimental, perhaps, but the sentimentality is earned. Jim Piersall has found his love for baseball at last. He’s returned to the Red Sox, and assures Mary that he’s doing it because he truly wants to. In some ways it’s a reversal of the gloomier but no less inspirational ending of The Pride of the Yankees, in which Gary Cooper’s Lou Gehrig, upon giving his farewell speech, steps off into the darkness and into death. Mulligan ends Fear Strikes Out with Perkins’ Jim Piersall stepping off into the light, and the way Mulligan directs this final shot is a masterstroke: before walking onto the field, Piersall stops, looks around, and considers his future. Then he accepts it, and moves on.
Francois Truffaut said it best: "Fear Strikes Out is a bitter and disillusioned film that doesn't want to make you live in America. But if there were French directors as lucid and talented as Mulligan, as capable of telling something more than ancedotes, the image of our country on the screen would be a bit less oversimplified."