Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Other (1972)



In the 34 years he worked as a Hollywood filmmaker, Robert Mulligan left us with so many wonderful films about children. Who can forget Jimmy Piersall in Fear Strikes Out (1957), Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), Joe Ferone in Up the Down Staircase (1967) or Dani Trant in The Man in the Moon (1991)? They were kids who dared to explore the classrooms, backyards and neighborhood streets of their youth, never once knowing what they'd find. They were the heroes in the films of a director who specialized in making movies about the wonders of discovery.

For my money, though, the most interesting period in Mulligan’s career occurred in the early 1970’s with what I consider to be his two finest films: Summer of ‘42 (1971) and The Other (1972). If Summer of ‘42 was enchanting in its description of a boy who experiences first love, then The Other is chilling in its portrait of a boy who has learned how to kill.

On the day Robert Mulligan died, the first movie I thought about was The Other. Not To Kill A Mockingbird. Not Summer of '42. No, not even Same Time, Next Year (1978) but, oddly enough, The Other. Ever since my childhood I had being vaguely familiar with the movie because of Mulligan’s name and because I had often seen the VHS in video stores during my youth. Then, in October 2008, I took a deep breath and rented it for the first time. I was absolutely shellshocked. It was one of the scariest movies I had ever seen. And by the time of Mulligan’s death a couple of months later, on December 20, 2008, I still had not recovered from the experience of watching the movie. I don’t believe I ever have.

If you haven’t seen The Other, be sure to watch the theatrical trailer first. It will set the mood for you. It won’t give away any of the important plot details, but it will give you an idea that you’re in for a real treat. If you’re planning on watching the movie, please read no further—save this piece until later. You’ll be missing out on one of the most jaw-dropping twists in American cinema if you allow someone to spoil for you the secrets of Mulligan’s horror movie masterpiece.

Mulligan opens The Other with roughly the same kind of shot he used to open To Kill A Mockingbird, when he moved us along black-and-white treetops before settling us down into the “tired old town” of 1930’s Maycomb. The Other, however, is set in the countryside of 1930’s Pequot Landing, where everybody knows everybody and people are spiteful of that “dirty Democrat” Roosevelt in the White House. Mulligan and his director of photography, Robert Surtees, begin the film by illuminating on the shiny colors of the Pequot Landing treetops as they move us deep into a lush, green forest before slowly closing in on a little boy in a yellow shirt, kneeling in a hidden clearing. His name is Niles Perry.

He is eleven years old. He is a kid you couldn’t possibly dislike no matter how hard you tried. He has a loving family: Aunt Vee (Norma Connolly), Uncle George (Lou Frizzell), Winnie (Loretta Leversee), the pregnant Torrie (Jenny Sullivan) and her husband, Rider (a young John Ritter). He has a doting Russian grandmother, Ada (Uta Hagen), the warmest person in his life. He carries around a tobacco tin which contains, among other things, a peregrine ring (“Peregrine for Perry”) as well as a small object wrapped in blue paper mache. And, most importantly, he has a best friend who looks exactly like him, talks exactly like him, and shares his exact same birthday: his twin brother, Holland.

But as the movie gets rolling, we sense that something is wrong. Mulligan has set up such a nice, cozy atmosphere for the audience that we can tell right off the bat that there's something fishy going on here. In every other scene, we see young Niles exclaiming “Yowsah!” every time he encounters something exciting, and we find it strangely off-putting. We see him beaming, “I love you, Ada!” at every chance he gets to see his Russian grandmother. There's got to be an explanation. Why is this kid is so happy and hyper? Why is his twin brother his only friend? Where is their father? How come their reclusive mother, Alexandra (Diana Muldaur), never comes down the stairs? Why does she weep every time she sees that sealed-off well outside in the front yard? We notice that the Perry family is reading, over the breakfast table, a newspaper reporting on the arrest of the Lindbergh child murderer. Torrie offers to take the newspaper up to the mother, but then Winnie says not to bring it up because it will “only upset her.” What does that mean?



Oh, and Holland. Holland is bad. He slingshots a rock into the bedroom mirror. He suffocates a pet rat. He terrorizes their neighbor, Mrs. Rowe (Portia Nelson), and then, when sent over to her house to apologize, shows up on her doorstep dressed in magician’s attire and casually invites himself into her home (like Jimmy Piersall inviting himself into Mary’s apartment in Fear Strikes Out). Once inside, he impresses Mrs. Rowe with his harmonica skills (“You’re musical!” she remarks, echoing Dorothy and Hermie’s “music” conversation in Summer of ’42), offers to put on a show for her, and then scares her to death—literally. He’s even able to solve the problem of Russell (Clarence Crow), the chubby kid who threatens to tell on him and Niles when he spies them carrying around that forbidden peregrine ring. Niles is uncomfortable carrying the ring around, but his twin brother would rather not bear its burden. “I told you you can have it,” Holland hisses to him. “It’s yours, and I don’t ever want it back!” The fact is, neither Niles nor Holland are allowed to be carrying the ring. It’s supposed to be buried.


Does anybody know about all the mischief Holland is causing? Niles does, but the only one he can confide his troubles to is Ada, who listens to Niles when he’s not feeling well and tries to console him by having him play “the game”, a meditative technique in which Niles can, for example, take the point of view of a raven as it flies over the Perry farm. This is one of the most visually imaginative sequences in the movie, as Mulligan actually has the camera take the point of view of the raven while it soars over Pequot Landing. We listen to Jerry Goldsmith’s lovely score, as it romanticizes the beauty of the moment—and then, for some strange reason, starts hitting more evil notes upon glancing at the sharp prongs of a nearby pitchfork. Later, Holland will find this pitchfork and smuggle it into the haystack of a barn, and then Russell will land on it and die.

It is only a matter of time before the evil deeds of Holland are found out. We see him and Niles running around through the tents of a circus, observing the act of a “damned phony” Chinese magician (Ed Bakey) and then nearly getting caught by a performer with a disfigured face. They find an alien baby in a bottle. Will that give them any ideas? Holland stares in disbelief when Niles tries to tell him about Ada’s belief that a red angel will one day greet them in the moment of death, and take them to Heaven. “How do you know she wouldn’t take you to hell?” Holland asks. “Angels don’t go to hell!” Niles retorts. “Only BAD people do.” Of course, Holland is unmoved by his brother’s warnings. Certainly it doesn’t stop him from attacking their mother and then pushing her down the stairs.



That is when a lightbulb goes off in Ada’s head. She finally catches on to what the twins are doing. But why does she only punish Niles, and not Holland? The scene in which she drags Niles to a cemetery starts out oddly; why in the world, we ask ourselves, has Mulligan taken us here? Where is this going? What does it have anything to do with the plot? And then, as Niles screams out for his brother, Ada forces him to look directly at a gravestone sitting before him, as the terrible truth—as well as the movie’s deadly secret—is revealed, burning our eyes and ringing in our ears at the sound of Ada’s vicious voice: “HOLLAND IS DEAD! REMEMBER? ON HIS BIRTHDAY! HE IS DEAD, NILES!”

Now, I’m going to stop there for a moment. Let me ask you: did you anticipate this scene? Were you able to figure out the twist beforehand? To be perfectly honest, I did not. Maybe it’s because I was a junior in high school at the time and had not seen too many movies like this, but for me, at least, the secret of The Other came as an unexpected shock. Even today, it is hard for me to accept. For others, though, it might already be obvious to tell that Niles is doing Holland’s bad deeds all by himself. One way of figuring it out, I suppose, is by taking into account that Holland never talks with anyone else but Niles. Niles talks to everybody in the Perry household all by himself. I guess what threw me off are two things: a) that Niles and Holland look so much alike that, when I first saw the film, it was sometimes hard for me to tell which is which, and b) that Ada and Alexandra both acknowledge Holland’s existence at key points in the film, proving at the very least that Holland is more than just an imaginary friend to Niles. We know that he is, or was, a real person.

Or maybe the reason why I wasn’t quite able to second-guess the movie accurately is because, putting it simply, Mulligan was a great filmmaker. Some would be tempted to call The Other his response to Psycho (and, actually, Hitchcock's Frenzy was also released in '72), but I think The Other should be thought of more as Mulligan’s Frankenstein story. Ada has been allowing Niles to keep Holland alive in his mind, without quite realizing the horrible consequences of what she is doing. “Oh God, I have done this thing!” she cries to a confused Niles. “I did not know how far it had gone… I only did it because I love you.” And so she does. But by allowing Niles to become a schizophrenic, she has inadvertently created a devilish little beast. In a later scene, Niles and Holland are talking again, this time with Niles being ridiculed by his dead twin: “Look, little brother! Getting scared isn’t gonna do any good! Besides, if you get scared, you won’t be able to play the game at all! And I won’t be around, then!” As Mulligan pulls back the camera, he reveals that Niles is, in fact, talking to a chair. And we notice that Ada is over on the steps, listening.

As I’ve written in some of my other pieces on Mulligan’s films, good parental guidance, and/or a lack thereof, often plays a strong role in some of his best works. If Atticus Finch represents the best possible parent a child could have, then Karl Malden’s John Piersall in Fear Strikes Out, who pushes his son to the point of mental breakdown, is almost indefinitely the nadir. Sam Waterston in The Man in the Moon is sort of like a compromise between the two: strict to his daughters, sometimes to an unnecessary degree, but because he cares and worries about them. Alan Alda's George in Same Time, Next Year is distraught over losing his son to combat in Vietnam, and, in his anguish, votes for Goldwater in hopes that he’ll drop the bomb.


But the mother in The Other, Diana Muldaur’s Alexandra, is different. Having gone insane, she is too much in grievance over her dead son and her dead husband (whom Niles also must have murdered) to be aware of what her still-living son is doing. Therefore, it is Ada who has to serve as Niles’ parental figure—and yet she treats Niles like a best friend, not like a pupil. She makes it clear to Niles that she had always thought his ghostly conversations with Holland would someday pass, and she forbids him to play “the game” ever again. But this, of course, does not stop him. He resets, and the whole thing starts all over again.

The movie’s screenplay was written by Thomas Tryon, adapted from his own book. You may remember that Tryon was for a brief time a famous Hollywood actor in the 50’s and 60’s, known sort of as a Montgomery Clift look-a-like. But after having to endure the hell of working with Otto Preminger on The Cardinal (1963) and In Harm’s Way (1965), Tryon grew disgusted with Hollywood and left to become a genre novelist. Why Mulligan wanted to film Tryon's book in the first place is hard to say. Maybe he longed to return to the gritty thriller genre, when he had had Gregory Peck duke it out with a bloodthirsty Apache in The Stalking Moon (1968). Or maybe Mulligan simply empathized with Tryon, a fellow Hollywood underdog, struggling to stay productive in a business where you're only as good as your last picture. Both of their careers would end in the early 1990's.

Tryon's book remains unread by me. I intend to read it someday. Curiously, he hated the film. "Oh, no. That broke my heart. Jesus. That was very sad," he complained in a 1977 interview. Of Mulligan, he was especially unkind; he described the film as "badly cut and faultily directed" and, even more surprisingly, complained that he never got to direct the film himself: "It was all step-by-step up to the point of whether I was going to become a director or not. The picture got done mainly because the director who did it wanted to do that property, and he was a known director; he was a known commodity." One wishes Tryon could have elaborated more on his criticisms. To him, the film was a disaster. To so many others (including fans of his book), it is, to this very day, still a very extraordinary experience.

The cast is impeccable. Uta Hagen brings out the warmth and the terrified realizations of Ada, at once the nicest person in the movie as well as, in some ways, the cruelest. Diana Muldaur is over-the-top as the mother, but she plays the role well, and we fear deeply for her as she sits paralyzed while Niles reads to her a prophetic story about the fable of the “changeling”. John Ritter, probably the most famous actor in the cast, has a small role, but evidently he went on to remember his work with Mulligan: Ritter later did an episode of 8 Simple Rules in which his character does an Atticus Finch impersonation and then has to explain, “To Kill A Mockingbird? Directed by Robert Mulligan? One of the greatest... never mind.” Victor French, who later appeared in Mulligan’s The Nickel Ride (1974), has the most sympathetic role in the film as Mr. Angelini, the sad groundskeeper who is blamed for many of Niles/Holland’s misdeeds and is then shipped off to the electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit, reminding us of Tom Robinson in Mockingbird. Lou Frizzell, another one of Mulligan’s favorite actors (he played the bemused pharmacist in Summer of ’42), is hilarious as the boy’s smiling uncle, confidant that all is going well on the Perry farm. Then he mistakenly opens a wine barrel that should have been left closed.



I haven’t yet mentioned the boys who played Niles and Holland. Their names were Chris and Marty Udvarnoky. After this film, they packed up their bags, left Hollywood and never made a movie again. They both enjoyed life back in New Jersey and joined the medical profession. I learned recently that Chris, who played Niles, passed away earlier this week. From what I understand, the boys didn’t like talking about The Other and have tried to suppress memories of it as they have grown up. Chris’ obituary doesn’t even mention the film.


I’d like to finish by talking about the ending. I have never forgotten it. In the wake of a sudden tragedy, Niles retreats to the darkness of the family barn and calls out to Holland, demanding an explanation. Ada attempts to get him to snap out of it, but this time Niles has refused to accept the truth; he hits Ada (like Jimmy Piersall hitting back his father in Fear Strikes Out), and continues to call out to a brother who isn't there. Finally, Ada decides to destroy her mad creation once and for all: like Natalie Wood blowing up the beach house at the conclusion of Inside Daisy Clover, she decides to set fire to the entire barn, and burn Niles alive. She even throws herself into the fire, thus transforming herself into a kind of martyr—an angel in hell.

And then we come to the final shot of the film, which takes place the next morning and is absolutely horrifying: Mulligan’s camera tracks up to the bedroom window of the Perry house, where Niles, shockingly unscathed by the fires, stares down at the ruins of the burned barn. “Niles!” Aunt Vee calls up. “Wash up, now! Time for lunch!” We hear the echoing whistle of Holland over the soundtrack, and then Mulligan freezes the frame on Niles’ evil, ensnaring face.


He is not the innocent child he once was. He never will be, ever again. The boy coming down to eat lunch at the Perry table is not a boy any longer, but a monster.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

RIP Chris Udvarnoky, star of The Other (1972)



Yesterday I read a post on the Internet Movie Database claiming that Chris Udvarnoky (seen above), who played the disturbed Niles Perry in one of my favorite films, Robert Mulligan's The Other (1972), had passed away. This comes as a very, very shocking coincidence for me, since I have been writing about a handful of Mulligan's films for the past two weeks and was just about to publish a piece on The Other this week.

At first I thought this rumor about Udvarnoky's death was a hoax--I hadn't read a single piece online confirming it, and even today I still have read nothing. But then a blogger in charge of a site known as The Raving Queen turned me to this obituary at New Jersey's Star Ledger website, which reads:

Christopher Udvarnoky, 49, died on Monday, Oct. 25, 2010, at Father Hudson House in Elizabeth. Services will be held at Memorial Funeral Home, 155 South Ave., Fanwood, on Friday at 11 a.m. Cremation will be private. Visitation will be Thursday from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. at the funeral home. For additional information or to sign the guestbook, please visit www.fanwoodmemorial.com. Born in Flint, Mich., Chris lived most of his life in Westfield. He graduated from Westfield High School in 1979, and was employed as an X-ray technician with Overlook Hospital, and, more recently, Rahway Hospital. Chris was also a longtime member of the Westfield Rescue Squad. He was predeceased by his father, Charles, who died in 2002. He is survived by his mother, Edith D'Andrea (and her husband, John); his twin brother, Marty (and his wife, Debbie); his former wife, Laureen Del Priore, and his nephew and niece, Ryan and Amanda. Those who wish may make memorial contributions to the Polycystic Kidney Foundation (www.pkdcure.org).

Okay, here's my first question: Why doesn't this obituary mention The Other? Why doesn't it mention that whenever people think of Tom Tryon's novel and Mulligan's movie and that whenever they hear the name "Niles Perry", the first image they think of is Chris Udvarnoky's face? I'm afraid I don't understand what the deal is.



My only guess is that after the movie was made, Chris and his twin brother, Martin, like a lot of child movie stars, went to great efforts to erase all evidence of their work on that movie and fold up into normal lives. Neither of them ever made a movie again. Maybe they don't want people to remember them as murderous little boys from that one movie about the evil twins.



If that is the case, then I despair--but if that's truly how the Udvarnoky boys wanted it, and if they couldn't live with the fame, and if living normal lives made them happier, then I am grateful. I guess my problem here is that The Other is just too awesome of a movie for the accomplishment of its stars and its late writer & director to go uncelebrated. But I digress.



Chris Udvarnoky, RIP. You gave one of the most blistering child performances in the history of the American cinema. It's a performance that I believe Haley Joel Osment's performance in The Sixth Sense owes something to. It's a performance that will haunt me for the rest of my days.

In honor of Udvarnoky's memory, and in honor of Mulligan's film as a whole (one of his best, in my opinion), I am going to have a piece published on The Other either today, tomorrow or Friday. I hope this obituary of mine spreads news of Udvarnoky's passing around the Web so that more people know about this tragedy. My condolensces go out to Martin and the rest of the Udvarnoky family, and I wish them peace.

A reminder: The Other is going to be airing on Turner Classic Movies on Friday, October 29 at 2:00 AM, very early in the morning. Please do not miss it.

EDIT 10/30/2010: Roger Ebert has tweeted about this tribute.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Summer of '42 (1971)



The first time Hermie lays his eyes on her, she is being carried up on the shoulders of another man. The man is her husband. In a matter of hours, he will be gone. In a matter of days, he will be dead. Then, for just one night, Hermie will have her all to himself--before she is gone, too. He sums up his memories of her in terse words: “No person I’ve ever known has done more to make me feel more sure, more insecure, more important, and less significant.” And for the longest time, he doesn’t even know her name.

Hermie’s discovery-filled summer serves as the backdrop of Summer of ’42 (1971), Robert Mulligan’s unforgettable coming-of-age masterpiece. It is a trip back to another time, when world war was shaking the country and fragments of America’s youth could still find comfort in something as simple as an island vacation. Protected by a matrix of sex, friendships, ocean tides and movie theaters, the kids back then knew very little about the impending doom that was awaiting them in the war, especially when it would be time for them to register for the draft. The film came out the same year as Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, another great film about a generation of American youth on the verge of sexual awakening. But where Bogdanovich’s film stirringly documented the slow disintegration of small-town America, Mulligan’s film, with its gleaming cinematography by Robert Surtees and its enchanting, Academy Award-winning musical score by Michael Legrand, looks back nostalgically at America when it was more innocent. The finished film is a sparkling gem, and one of the most beautiful films of its kind.



Adapted by Herman Raucher from his own bestselling book, Summer of ’42 details the summer of 15-year old Hermie (Gary Grimes), a stand-in for the author, who spends his days running around the beaches of a New England island with his two best friends, Oscy (Jerry Houser) and Benjie (Oliver Conant). Together they form the “Terrible Trio”, although Benjie, being the youngest of the three, spends the majority of the film attempting to keep up with his two older friends, struggling to follow each of their individual examples. Benjie has recently come into possession of a medical book that Hermie and Oscy immediately take a liking to: it’s an invaluable educational tool for pubescent boys who have become increasingly aware of the female bodies surrounding them all over the island. Hey, anything to take their mind off the war; while it is never mentioned in the film, the title itself is a dead giveaway that it’s only been half a year since the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Foreplay!” Oscy squeals, as the boys turn to a chapter in the book that teaches them about how to prepare for sex. “It’s called foreplay! Everyone takes their clothes off and they play foreplay! Then he does this, and she does this, and before you know it, they’re screwing! Now, what could be simpler than that?” Nothing, it seems, although Oscy and Benjie notice right away something that is almost surely more difficult: Hermie’s infatuation with the 20-something girl (Jennifer O’Neill) next door. She lives in a cottage overlooking the edges of the island, and from the moment she enters Hermie’s sight, he cannot take his eyes off of her; Oscy and Benjie have a heck of a time making fun of Hermie and his hopeless daydreaming. “I don’t know what’s come over you,” Oscy mumbles. “You know, that’s a very old person over there.”

To be sure, she’s not much older than the boys are. The girl looks like she married at a young age, and although she and her husband (Walter Scott) have not yet conceived a child, it is almost certain that when he returns home from the war he’ll reengage with her before you can say baby boom. As he sails off to war, she waves him goodbye and then runs back to the cottage in tears. Soon she is sunbathing on the beach with her eyes closed and Hermie is making his first moves, although Oscy and Benjie delight in foiling his advances (“Hey, lady in the pink suit! It’s Hermie the rape artist! It’s Jack the Ripper! It’s Herman the German, Nazi spy! It’s a sex fiend!”). Hermie, angered, gets in a hotheaded brawl with his friends on the sand dunes. If Oscy and Benjie aren’t going to help him in his pursuits, he’ll just have to go it alone.



You can’t help but admire Hermie’s inspired, if totally clichéd, first successful attempt at making a connection with the girl, when he offers to help carry her groceries all the way to her cottage. Sure enough, it works. She’s so charmed by his cute ways of impressing her that she invites him into the house. Once inside, Hermie himself manages to do three wise things: a) turn down the girl’s money but gratefully accept a cup of coffee, so that he can still find a way to stay in the house and talk to her; b) take his coffee black, which is certainly how he should take it if he wants her to think he’s manly enough; and c) excuse himself to leave, before waiting for her to ask him to leave. He even does it in such a way that she asks, “Oh, do you have to go?” although he kicks himself over warning her that she might “get a hernia” if she doesn’t bring a wagon for her groceries next time. No matter: he’s made a good impression on her.



We know that Stanley Kubrick was a fan of Summer of '42; in The Shining, Wendy and Danny are watching this very scene on the Overlook’s television set. Perhaps Kubrick took a liking to Hermie’s idiotic flirting with the girl, especially when they start talking about music and he claims to be “quite musical”. She asks him if he plays any instruments. His deadpan reply: "Yeah, I sing." She chuckles at that. “Oh”, he explains, “I think a voice is like an instrument!” I am willing to bet Kubrick was even more impressed with the later scene, in which Hermie comes over to the girl’s cottage again, this time to clean out her attic. To his surprise, she shows up dressed in provocative white sporting gear. When she ascends the ladder and Hermie is staring up at her from down below, he gets a good look at her figure. Then, when she goes down below and Hermie ascends the ladder, he is, by this point, completely aroused by what he has just seen. This is where Mulligan’s aesthetic really kicks off: when the girl observes that Hermie’s legs are shaking, Hermie starts fantasizing about her legs. And when he blames his loose demeanor on the ladder and the girl asks, “Do you want me to hold it?” Hermie starts fantasizing about her shapely rear.



It’s just one of the many important questions this film asks its target male adolescent audience. How do you control arousal in the presence of an attractive woman? How do you know when it’s the appropriate time to put your arm around her at the movies? How do you know, without looking, if you’re squeezing a breast… or an arm? How do you hide your embarrassment when buying your first condom? The latter makes for what is perhaps the most hilarious scene in the film. Oscy and Hermie are preparing for a campfire date with a couple of girls their age, and Oscy has dared Hermie to buy contraceptives at the local drugstore. Mulligan plays this scene until it’s absolutely side-splitting: first Hermie has to wait for an elderly female customer to leave. Then he has to ask the druggist (Lou Frizzell, one of Mulligan’s favorite actors) for a triple strawberry ice cream cone, then some sprinkles, then a napkin, and then “HOW ABOUT SOME RUBBERS?” Which brand? the druggist asks. How many? Who’s he buying them for? Hermie by this point is so overwhelmed with options, the druggist finally has to cut to the chase: “Alright now, son, fun is fun, but how old are you?” He asks Hermie if he knows what condoms are used for. “Sure,” Hermie responds. “You fill them up with water and then you throw them off the roof.”

The movie considers that Hermie and Oscy’s obsessions with sex may have something to do with proving their masculinity. They both have brothers who are serving in the war: Hermie’s brother is a paratrooper, and Oscy’s brother, judging from one of Oscy’s T-shirts, is apparently in the Army. Not being in the military puts Hermie and Oscy at a disadvantage maturity-wise, thus elevating their sex drives and causing them to be constantly competitive with one another. Oscy calls Hermie a “homo”. Hermie calls Oscy “crass”. They argue with each other over the medical book’s confusing descriptions of foreplay—that dreaded word they keep hearing. The book claims that there’s 12 steps to foreplay, and Oscy lectures Hermie: “When you get to point 6, there’s no more talking; just moaning and sighing. Just moan and sigh!” The problem is that Oscy has a much higher sex drive than Hermie does, and the competition between the two boys ensures it so that, on the campfire date, Oscy ends up with the voluptuous girl, Miriam (Christopher Norris), and Hermie ends up with the shy “intellectual”, Aggie (Katherine Allentuck). In the most poignant scene in the film, Aggie, bored by Hermie’s lack of interest in her, stumbles upon Oscy and Miriam making love in the grass—and flees from the scene in tears. Her flight represents the natural teenage fear of sex that even Hermie finds himself wrestling with.



The older girl next door, by the way, is named Dorothy. To modern audiences it won’t come as a surprise to see that Hermie does finally manage to get in bed with her near the end of the film—to audiences back then, however, it came as a complete shock. Look at how Mulligan sets this scene up: Hermie comes to Dorothy’s cottage in the evening, only to find the house seemingly bare. The first things he sees are a wine bottle, an ashtray with a lit cigarette, a spinning record on a phonograph, and a letter specifying that Dorothy’s husband has been killed in action. Then Dorothy walks in, and to Hermie’s eyes she is a glistening, sad beauty. As she’s cleaning up, Hermie offers his condolences. She turns around and walks up towards Hermie—first she is shrouded in darkness, then she appears up to him in light. They dance. They kiss. And then, in a scene that lasts for a stunning four minutes, she takes him to bed.


Before this scene was to be shot, Jennifer O’Neill—a heavily conservative Christian with a strong belief in abstinence—made it clear that she didn’t want any of her exposed parts appearing on the screen, and so Mulligan was forced to figure out how to find a way around the nudity problem. We’ll never know if the scene would have been enhanced with nudity; Mulligan’s camera is clearly enamored with Jennifer O’Neill’s figure throughout the movie, as if screaming, even louder than we are, to see what she looks like without clothes. But by working within more classical bounds of filmmaking, Mulligan did something astonishing: he made the scene erotic without feeling pornographic. And the sex between Hermie and Dorothy feels not like “screwing”, as Oscy might put it, but like a sincere moment of bonding. There are no words between them, and there isn’t even really any foreplay, either: the entire sequence is told with visuals and images. Mulligan almost makes us forget we’re watching a sound film.


Hermie’s experience with Dorothy is not something he can ever tell his parents. Not that there’s any temptation to: they don’t even make an appearance in the film. From time to time we hear Hermie’s mother calling out to him, but we don’t get the feeling that she cares what he does, anyway. He speaks of his parents early on in the film, “they don’t bother me. I pretty much go my own way.” It makes for a nice contrast with some of the other parental figures in Mulligan’s films, notably Karl Malden’s controlling father in Fear Strikes Out (1957), Sam Waterston's strict but loving father in The Man in the Moon (1991) and, of course, Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). When you look at Ruth Gordon’s weak mother in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) or Diana Muldaur’s insane mother in The Other (1972), you see more eccentric parental figures. But because the parents in Summer of ’42 are not as involved in their son’s life, the narrative is given entirely to the son and his personal discoveries, notably those with Dorothy. After his book became a hit and his screenplay, completed in just ten days, was sold, Herman Raucher received several letters from women claiming to be the real Dorothy; he allegedly did receive a letter from a woman with the same handwriting, but there was never another form of contact between them again.

After they have sex, Dorothy wishes Hermie goodnight. In the morning, he’ll clasp onto one of the many fences on the island, looking out to the sea, pondering over what has just happened to him. To Oscy, sex has been nothing more than “my first lay, gone with the wind.” To Hermie, it has been too complex of an experience to put into words. He’ll find no solace in the banal conversations with his naïve friends, and he won’t find any solace in Dorothy’s cottage, either: when he returns to her door, she is gone. She has left him to cope with his feelings and use them wisely during his maturity into manhood. And we listen to Hermie’s recollections (voiced on the soundtrack by Mulligan himself) one last time, before the camera looks out to the glimmering sunset and then fades to black.

“Life is made of small comings and goings,” he tells us. “And for everything that we take with us, there is something we leave behind. In the Summer of ’42, we raided the coast guard station four times. We saw five movies, and had nine days of rain. Benjie broke his watch, Oscy gave up the harmonica… and in a very special way, I lost Hermie forever.”

Cross-posted at Edward Copeland on Film.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962): Praise and Criticism for Robert Mulligan's Most Popular Film



“To begin with, this case should never have come to trial.” Atticus Finch begins his closing statement with these words, and from that point delivers a speech so true, so commanding, so universal, you would have to be a fool not to believe it. It is the single greatest courtroom speech in the history of American movies.

I don’t usually confess things like this, but here it is: To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) is the film that launched me into an obsession with classic movies. All of my love for the classic filmmakers of Hollywood begins with Robert Mulligan. I first saw the film at the age of fourteen, in the summer after my departure from middle school. High school was just around the corner. One day, at the Webster Groves library, I found a videotape of To Kill A Mockingbird for rental and took it home. I was familiar with it, mainly, because the AFI had voted Atticus Finch #1 in their list of the Top 50 Heroes in American cinema. Once the movie was over, I was so overjoyed, I was in tears. Then when I entered high school the following autumn, as a freshman, I read Harper Lee’s novel for the first time. Again, nothing but joy. There was absolutely no stopping my seemingly immortal and undying love for this extraordinary story.

But those years are long gone. I’ve seen far too many more movies and far too many superior movies—some of which, for that matter, were directed Robert Mulligan. Don’t get me wrong: I still love To Kill A Mockingbird. Truly, I do. But this is not a perfect film. Far from it. Nor is the original novel a flawless work. In my young teenage years, I regarded both Lee’s novel and Mulligan’s film to be without compare, finding no fault in either of them and often getting in extensive arguments with those who thought otherwise. But after watching the movie again recently, I’ve suddenly realized that for all of its messages about love, tolerance, anti-discrimination and nonviolence, To Kill A Mockingbird is also a story that inadvertently contradicts itself by endorsing hero worship, stereotypical antagonists and, most offensive of all, eye-for-an-eye justice. It is a story that is at once beautiful and hypocritical.

Matt Zoller Seitz, one of my favorite critics, shares my appreciation for To Kill A Mockingbird but is also quick to criticize the film where it is deserved. In a slideshow for Salon, Seitz writes, “My problem is the way this movie (and its source novel) make the heroes so pure, the villains so irredeemably craven and nasty, and the moral lessons so tidy. Atticus Finch is the nicest man who ever lived. Accused rapist Tom Robinson is innocent of all charges, including the implication that a black man could be turned on by the likes of his accuser, the gangly, shrewish, redneck slut Mayella Ewell. Mayella's dad, Bob Ewell--who beat Mayella and concocted the phony rape and battery charges to save face--is a racist pig, a step up from the hillbillies in Deliverance.”



The irony here, as Seitz observes, is that To Kill A Mockingbird reduces its heroes to archetypes and its villains to stereotypes even though it is a story written for the purpose of denouncing all archetypes and stereotypes in general. This is supposed to be a story about people who think the way they do for a reason, good people who sometimes do bad things, and flawed people who don’t know any better than what they have been taught since childhood. In his famous courtroom speech, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) uses this sensible rhetoric when he speaks before the jury and tries to overcome their racism by dismissing two kinds of stereotypes: the idea that black men can’t be trusted around white women, and the idea that all poor white people are stupid, soulless and hopelessly bigoted.

Well, the movie certainly makes good on deconstructing that first stereotype. But To Kill A Mockingbird fails to make good on its second promise of illuminating on the poor white characters of the story as human beings. The one bigoted white character in all of To Kill A Mockingbird who can absolutely be described as three-dimensional is the farmer Walter Cunningham (Crahan Denton), who brings Atticus bags of hickory nuts every week as payment for legal work Atticus once did for him, but then finds himself morally conflicted when he leads a lynch mob against Atticus at the local jail, and is unsure whether to proceed. Perhaps in some ways a case can be made that the abused, frightened Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox) is a three-dimensional character, since she is a victim of incest, is confused by her sexual feelings and, as a consequence, puts another man’s life at stake after she does something that her society considers “unspeakable”. But no such complexities can be applied to her father, Bob Ewell (James Anderson), who as Seitz correctly writes, is never seen as anything more than an evil, racist pig. He has only purpose: to be the guy we’re supposed to hate.



Keep in mind that these problems in the movie’s characterizations are not just the fault of Horton Foote’s Academy Award-winning screenplay. This is exactly how Harper Lee wrote them in her novel. Foote’s job was only to adapt her pages; practically every intellectual concept that is present in Mulligan’s film is one of Lee’s own original concepts. Yet as Seitz explains, it is not only the antiheroes in To Kill A Mockingbird who are sort of drawn up stereotypically. Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), the black man Mayella has accused of rape, is so generous that he’s almost too generous. Even if he didn’t take advantage of Mayella, is it so hard to believe that he might have been somewhat aroused by her advances? In his defense, Tom does seem to be a man committed to family values: he has a wife (Kim Hamilton) who loves him, and a father (Jester Hairston) who worries about him. Maybe he’s also fully aware of what might happen if he got in any kind of scandal with a white girl. Still, when Tom is on the stand, he describes the incident as if he’s an adolescent boy who feels threatened by any kind of temptations of the flesh. Tom’s big scene is powerful, and the tearjerking performance by Brock Peters is something I’ve never forgotten—but there’s also that element of peculiar sexual logic it has going for it.

What about Atticus? Is he too archetypal? I can't say. I confess that I myself am probably not fully willing to slam the character. All of us have wished at some point or another that we could have had a father like Atticus Finch—and Harper Lee modeled the character off of her own dad—but Atticus Finch himself is such a larger-than-life character, he almost comes off as a tall tale. When the AFI voted him their #1 Hero, there’s a reason why he ended up beating Indiana Jones, James Bond and even George Bailey for that top spot: he’s a hero without error. Lee wrote him as an all-knowing wise man who knows what’s best for everybody. He believes in tolerance and nonviolence, even though he is not quite a full-fledged pacifist (he is not above putting a rapid dog out of its misery, and recognizes an act of "clear-cut, self-defense" at a key moment). Again, however, I’m not fully willing to slam Atticus as a character. I’ve always liked the way he is written.



Actually, parenting is a favorite theme in many of Robert Mulligan’s films. In Fear Strikes Out (1957), the father was a controlling man who pushed his son too hard—as opposed to Atticus Finch, who treats his children the way they ought to be treated. Inside Daisy Clover (1965) featured Ruth Gordon as a mother who loves her daughter but is powerless to save her from a viper’s nest of betrayals when she leaves home to become a movie star. The mother in Summer of ’42 (1971) is largely absent from the screen and totally oblivious to her teenage son’s sexual awakening, and the mother in The Other (1972) has gone mad. Alan Alda in Same Time, Next Year (1978) is distraught about his son’s death in Vietnam and decides to vote for Goldwater in hopes that he’ll drop the bomb. Sam Waterston in The Man in the Moon (1991) dotes on his daughters and, consequently, alternates between loving and hotheaded.



One thing I like about Atticus Finch is that he is not so foolish as to believe he is the only force of influence in his children's lives. A widower, he has hired Calpurnia (Estelle Evans) to serve as their mother figure, and cares not if the rest of the town objects to him running a multiracial household. He and Calpurnia both are aware that Jem and Scout's new friend Dill (John Megna), modeled off of Truman Capote, is a charlatan when he touts that he dad owns the L & R railroad--but he lets boys be boys. And he has a kind neighbor in Maudie Atkinson (Rosemary Murphy), one of the few people in town who understands that what Atticus is doing for Tom Robinson is right.



The most special thing about Atticus Finch is that he wants nothing more than for his children, Jem (Philip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham), to grow up adopting his dogma of acceptance of others. Scout doesn’t understand why Atticus makes an effort to small-talk the cranky old Mrs. Dubose (Ruth White), and Jem can’t help but stare in confusion when Atticus resists getting into physical fights with Bob Ewell, especially when he molests the windows of Atticus’ car and, in a later scene, spits in his face. Atticus knew the day was coming when he’d have to explain these issues to his kids, and he has thoughtful answers for them. He explains to daughter, “if you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin, and walk around in it.” His talk with Jem is more disconcerting, but no less honest: “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep them all away from you. That’s never possible.”



Jem and Scout’s strong relationship with their father is, indeed, the heart of the picture, and one of the pleasures of To Kill A Mockingbird is seeing them attempt to adopt their father’s advice and become better human beings. Atticus has told Scout that if he were to refuse to defend Tom Robinson, he couldn’t hold his head up in town—he wouldn’t really be in a place to teach his kids how to distinguish between right and wrong. No doubt Atticus has given this same talk to Jem at one point or another, and both Jem and Scout practice following Atticus’ advice during the famous scene in which Walter Cunningham’s mob comes to the local jail, attempting to lynch Tom Robinson. Jem and Scout take matters into their own hands, and intervene: Scout’s sudden, innocent conversation with Cunningham shames the mob and lowers their guard. And Jem refuses to leave his father’s side. From a parent’s perspective, Atticus is doing the right thing when he orders his kids to go home; but Jem defies him, perhaps because he has realized that he could never hold up his head in town if he were to abandon his father to the mob and, quite possibly, watch him get hurt. Notice that, after the mob leaves, Atticus patiently asks the kids to go home, and then quietly pats Jem on the back, effectively recognizing his son’s courage. In this scene, Atticus, Jem and Scout all come away as heroes.

Roger Ebert criticizes this scene in his 2 ½-star review, claiming that it would never have happened this way in real life. I don’t agree with Ebert on this particular scene, although I will consent that the rest of Ebert’s complaints about To Kill A Mockingbird are valid. When I first read Ebert’s review as a young teenager, it outraged me. But reading it again, I can’t deny he has a point when he attacks the film’s more dubious scenes, which all follow Atticus’ courtroom speech: for example, after the racist jury finds Tom Robinson guilty, there are, strangely, no loud protests from the black crowd up on the balcony. The scene is written and directed in such a way so that the emphasis is put entirely on Atticus’ heroism for defending Tom, and hardly at all on the harsh realities of Tom’s fate.

Later, when it is revealed that Tom has been shot dead upon escaping from custody, Horton’s Foote’s screenplay veers into a most awful direction: it makes it look as though it was Tom’s own fault for running away from the police. In Harper Lee’s novel, the authorities shoot Tom seventeen times, clearly indicating that he was the victim of a racist shooting. Foote’s screenplay, however, omits this crucial detail, and changes the circumstances of Tom’s death to make him look like the guilty one instead. And Ebert also validly criticizes the scene in which Atticus breaks the bad news to the Robinson family, writing that “the black people in this scene are not treated as characters, but as props, and kept entirely in long shot. The close-ups are reserved for the white hero and villain.”



But I have not even gotten yet to the most offensive sequence in the film, one that both Harper Lee’s novel and Horton Foote’s screenplay share in common: the ending. On Halloween night, Jem and Scout, on their way home, take a shortcut through the woods, and are then attacked by a deranged Bob Ewell before the mysterious Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) puts Ewell’s cowardly actions to a stop, and kills him. I’m not going to lie: this ending makes me feel good. It makes me happy to know that Boo Radley turns out to be a nice guy after all, that he comes to the children’s rescue and that he rids the town of the vile man who caused an innocent black man’s death. And that is precisely what it is about the manipulative effect of this ending that disgusts me.

Harper Lee wrote this ending for a very obvious reason: she couldn’t bear to end her novel without killing off the villain. She and Horton Foote couldn’t end the story without making sure that the racist pig got his just desserts. They didn’t give a damn about Atticus Finch’s universal message of tolerance and nonviolence: they wanted eye-for-an-eye justice to prevail at the end of the story. They wanted to see a knife stuck up Bob Ewell’s ribs. I think this is nasty.



As Matt Zoller Seitz writes, “think about how Lee's universe contorts itself to ensure that the wicked are punished anyway (Halloween costume; knife), suggesting that there's a higher law that will eventually hold everyone accountable (a fine lesson if you're devout, but what if you're not?).” Just to add to Seitz’s criticisms, the reason why the ending of To Kill A Mockingbird rubs me the wrong way so much is because it’s such a clumsy way to conclude such an innovative story: the ending of To Kill A Mockingbird is formulaic, irrational, and even nihilistically sentimental. When Sheriff Heck Tate (Frank Overton) decides he’s going to cover up the incident and file a report stating that Ewell simply fell on his knife, it is not because Tate is concerned that all of Maycomb is going to be vulgarly celebrating Ewell’s death—it is because Tate is worried that Boo Radley will be overwhelmed by all the attention. Tate thinks this would be a “sin”, which makes absolutely no sense to me. Nor, for that matter, does Scout’s claim that Tate’s decision is “right”, or her comparison of Boo Radley to an innocent mockingbird. I agree more with Atticus, who looks at Scout quizzically when she makes this random comparison, asking her, “how do you mean?”

Did Mulligan and his longtime producer, Alan J. Pakula, recognize these as flaws in Foote’s screenplay? Not likely. I’m sure they were wholly committed to being as faithful in interpreting Lee’s pages as accurately as possible, for fear of aggravating unforgiving fans of the novel. In this sense they can only be lauded, as the film does remain one of the most faithful adaptations of a work of literature to date. Never mind the awkward turn of events in Lee and Foote’s dramatic structures, which happen mostly towards the end of the story and are never really explored.



In a nutshell, every single one of the later scenes following Atticus’ courtroom speech is flawed. That’s why I prefer, instead, to turn back to the courtroom speech itself, which has continued to stay with me to this day. “Now, gentlemen,” Atticus reminds the jury, “in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created… equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in our jury system. That’s no ideal to me—that is a living, working reality!” Atticus' code of honor is dutifully accepted by his peers in the courtroom: Judge Taylor (Paul Fix), to the credit of Lee and Foote, is not one of the more stereotypical characters in the story but, rather, a sensible man of the law who is clearly unhappy with the jury's final verdict, slamming the door on his way out. The prosecutor, Gilmer (William Windom), never objects to Atticus' questions to the witnesses, and vice versa. They all understand that they have jobs to do, and they have a trial to settle.



As for Atticus? He appears to be a man who has spent his entire life believing there is good in people, and has been thankful for it despite personal tragedies. No doubt the death of his wife has left a hole in his heart, and in one of Mulligan’s best-remembered shots in the film, we see Atticus sitting out on the front porch swing, listening solemnly to his sleepy children conversing about the memories of their deceased mother while he has his arm stretched outward onto the swing—around a wife who isn’t there. It's probably the most haunting shot in the film, and the only scene in the film where Atticus stops functioning as a mouthpiece for Lee and Foote's worldviews and disappears into ambiguity, reserving a quiet moment all for himself.



Now that I have looked more carefully at To Kill A Mockingbird—now that I have analyzed it extensively, shot-for-shot, line-for-line—I think I can finally bring myself to be at some kind of peace with it. As Robert Mulligan’s most popular work, it will continue to be a controversial film, and I may never cease to take issue with some of its most disconcerting narrative flaws. But what continues to live on, for me, is Atticus Finch’s complete determination to do what is right, even when the majority of the townspeople of Maycomb rally up against him. His last words to that unflinching jury get me every time: “In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God… believe Tom Robinson.” I’m not a religious person, but even though Atticus’ attempts to save him are unsuccessful, I hope that Tom Robinson went to a better place. And I hope, for that matter, that Bob Ewell went to a better place, too. I hope with all my heart that wounds were healed and lives were restored in Maycomb County when Jem waked up in the morning.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

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."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ryan Kelly and Adam Zanzie present: The Steven Spielberg Blogathon



The unthinkable has happened. Ryan Kelly and I shall be hosting a Steven Spielberg blogathon from December 18th to the 28th. That's right. Spielberg. THE BIG ONE. The filmmaker that nobody else in blogosphere history has dared to devote a blogathon to, and Ryan and I now have no choice but to step up to the plate.

Why December 18th for opening day? Because Spielberg turns 64 that day (at least, if you're judging by his real birth year--1946--and not 1947, which he used to claim was his birth year for reasons still unexplained). And Ryan and I have been in something of a cinematic draught because of Spielberg's refusal to make any new movies of his own in the last two years, so this is our way of saying: DUDE! HURRY UP!

Of course, the blogathon will also be a celebration of Spielberg the Artist, and not Spielberg the Capitalist. Too many critics and audiences, in our humble opinions, consider Spielberg to be nothing more than a greedy entertainer, and we will seek to correct those ludicrous cultural beliefs. But we NEED YOUR HELP! How can you prove that Spielberg is an artist? We want as many interpretations as possible.

Now, if you're not a Spielberg fan, and you have legitimate criticisms of his work as well, by all means contribute them--as long as they're civilized.

To add to the fon of the occasion, Ryan has built a site devoted to the blogathon. Ryan's built some fine-looking banners there, which we would love for you guys to put on your sidebars as soon as possible.

And we promise you this: you will not regret participating. Not at all. There will be generations because of what you did.



See you in December, everybody.