Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Robert Mulligan was one of the top Golden Age television directors before earning his screen
reputation as the most sensitive director of the 60s, with pictures like To Kill a Mockingbird
and Up the Down Staircase. Actors bloomed under his expert guidance. In his very first film,
Fear Strikes Out, newcomer Anthony Perkins and Karl Malden were the fortunate performers.
Fear Strikes Out is a baseball story that spends less than twenty minutes on the field.
It's all about the mental stress of a man living under unreasonable psychological demands. Mulligan
and his producer Alan J. Pakula keep their show as simple as the then-popular television dramas,
and use the big screen to amplify the tension without overstating their case.
Jimmy Piersall (Anthony Perkins) wants to be a big-league ball player, but his
unforgiving, taskmaster father (Karl Malden) drives him to anxious extremes with over-practice and constant
nagging. Jimmy gets his
chance at the big leagues, but the pressure of his marriage and the demands of his father push
him over the edge of sanity. Can the psychiatrists of 1950 figure out the
source of Jimmy's problem?
In serious dramas, at least, the 50s are the years of the nervous breakdown. There are pills, politics,
and pressures at work that only sociologists can nail down, and anxieties that seem to condense directly
out of the air. A show like Bigger than Life is supposedly about a wonder drug misused, but
subversively suggests that good father James Mason is unhinged by society itself. As part of his
mania, the deranged Mason drives his son mercilessly, making him practice ball in the back yard to
the point of exhaustion.
The story of Jimmy Piersall is a similar one, except it happened in real life. Fear Strikes Out
takes the drama down to the level
of everyday family dynamics. Karl Malden's father is introduced as a poor but honest working man who
lives his dreams through his son, a talented ball player. Young Jimmy doesn't enjoy practicing
his game, but instead labors as if it were a dire responsibility. It's unspoken but assumed that
he is the one who must succeed to save the family from poverty.
From the very beginning, this is bad news for Jimmy's mental health, as he's not permitted to have a
personality of his own. Dad micromanages his life, refuses to let him take responsibility for himself,
relax or be in the least bit lazy, not even momentarily. Jimmy says "I" when talking about
his baseball career, but Dad says "we", always "we". Jimmy is never allowed to even have the
privacy of his own mind or desires, as he's the involuntary partner in a father-son team. It's good
fathering taken to an extreme, the kind of simple psychological conflict that people were probably a lot
less conscious of then, than they are now. In his very first scene, Dad talks about quitting a job
because he didn't get along with a foreman. The family is living in a coldwater apartment in a slum,
but Dad has that freedom. Jimmy doesn't share the ability to say No. When the pressure mounts in
his later big league success, it's too much for him.
The acting here is phenomenal, with Perkins' troubled reactions and hints of stress-related meltdown
expressing Jimmy's problem quite convincingly. It's acting, but it all seems credible - his mounting
pressure is the pulse of the picture. And the supporting players back him up well - wife Mary (Norma
Moore) sympathizes but is no more perceptive than anyone else in recognizing Jimmy's problems. Outwardly,
the ball player is so strong and self-reliant ...
The story stays focused on Jimmy instead of those around him - there are no showboat scenes where
Mary or Jim's mother take Dad to task for crushing his son under the weight of their 'partnership',
the kind of thing you'd see in a teleplay with Author's Messages to deliver, and supporting actor
prizes to win. Dad does learn to back down, but that happens off-screen. And wisest of all, the happy ending
of this true story has Jimmy returning bravely to the game to face his fear of failure, but this
time without the extra weight of his father on his back.
Again, Perkins is a marvel at portraying subtle inner discord, and Fear Strikes Out is a
powerful companion picture to the colder Psycho. Karl Malden is everyone's father figure, a
good man who doesn't understand the pressures he puts on those around him. Norma Moore is carefully
chosen and directed to not provide a 'healing' diversion - in a Sirkian picture of the time, it would
fall on wifey's shoulders to cure Jimmy through Love. And Adam Williams, a Paramount contract player
of limited range, is cleverly used as the psychiatrist - well-meaning, he doesn't automatically come
across as having the skills to recognize & attack Jimmy's problems.
Paramount's plain-wrap DVD of Fear Strikes Out has a solid b&w transfer of this VistaVision
film. Elements & sound are nigh-perfect. In its original widescreen format, the drama seems bigger
and more balanced than on old television viewings. There are no extras. A helpful disclaimer on the back of
the package assures us that these non-existent extras are not rated.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fear Strikes Out rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 20, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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