"All my life I've been splitting my gut to please you, and I never could."
Booming and severe, the opening strains of Elmer Bernstein's score for Fear Strikes Out seem more appropriate for a biopic about Attila the Hun than a baseball movie. But then Fear Strikes Out isn't your typical baseball movie. Loosely based on actual events, it tells the story of Jimmy Piersall, whose battle with bipolar disorder — back in an era when mental disorders tended to get filed under less sympathetic catch-alls like "insanity" — was the distinguishing characteristic of his 17-year major league career. For all the movies that find romance in baseball, from The Natural to Bull Durham to Field of Dreams to The Rookie to, well, almost all of them, Fear Strikes Out is the counterbalanace. It replaces joy with stress, turns cheers into jeers and makes a game feel like a gauntlet. A story of shadows and demons, Fear Strikes Out could only have been made in black and white. The lush green grass of a baseball field would have added an air of optimism that doesn't belong.
Directed by Robert Mulligan in his feature film debut, Fear Strikes Out establishes its nightmarish tone from its opening scenes, which find a young Jimmy Piersall practicing his game on a small, dusty front yard ringed by a chain-link fence that has the feel of a prison camp. Under the watchful eye of his warden-like father, John, Jimmy grows up with all of the flexibility of an inmate. Bed times are strict. Fun with friends is essentially forbidden. And Jimmy's successes merely serve as indicators of his failures. John micromanages his son under the guise of mentorship, firm in the belief that he's improving Jimmy's chances of becoming a successful professional ballplayer. And to some degree he is. But at the same time John is stripping away Jimmy's humanity, holding his son captive to the belief that the only acceptable outcome of his life is to be a starring outfielder for the Boston Red Sox — a destination that John presses Jimmy to reach sooner rather than later.
Demanding fathers aren't unusual at the cinema, but there's something about tyranny in sports that seems especially cruel. In most movies, baseball brings fathers and sons together. Here it's divisive. And yet in Fear Strikes Out, as in its antithesis Field of Dreams, baseball is still a father and son's only common ground. The relationship between John and Jimmy is distinct of its time, reminiscent of the relationship explored in last year's The Tree of Life, also set in the 1950s, in which affection and intimidation are dispensed simultaneously, so that it's impossible to tell one from the other. Of course, Fear Strikes Out is for these times, too, because John's singular focus on Jimmy's baseball career brings to mind today's hypercompetitive parents who use their children's successes as validation of their own self-worth. In several scenes, John says of Jimmy's efforts to play for the Red Sox "We're going to make it," but the responsibility is all on Jimmy, and eventually the pressure becomes too much to bear.
Jimmy's unraveling is unsettlingly vivid. In the movie's most ingenious scene, Jimmy stands in a vacant Fenway Park imagining what it would be to play a game there at what will be his new position: shortstop. As Jimmy looks around the empty seats he hears the murmurs of a capacity crowd waiting for him to screw up. Staring toward the plate, lost in a trance, Jimmy drops to his knee as if to field a grounder and — poof! — just then the crowd noise vanishes and the hallucination ends. But the fear lingers on — a gripping, sweaty paranoia that explodes fully formed in Jimmy's most embarrassing meltdown, when he drills a ball into the gap and goes tearing around the bases as if chased by demons before crossing home plate and staring into the Fenway crowd pleading, "How was that? Was that good enough?" As teammates attempt to usher Jimmy back to the dugout, Jimmy clings to the backstop and even tries to scale the fence — an inmate desperate to escape his surroundings.
Anthony Perkins' performance Jimmy is only his second most famous portrayal of a young man undone by an overbearing parent, but it's just as haunting as his work in Psycho. Perkins is so fragile here, so desperate — a dark-haired James Dean, right down to his "You're killing me" speech that echoes the "You're tearing me apart" outburst in Rebel Without a Cause. But the film's best performance is by Karl Malden as Jimmy's father John. The rare actor who was equally convincing as a scoundrel or a saint, Malden is ideal for the well-intending but mostly destructive. Malden makes every calculating putdown sting, his eyes constantly ablaze with intensity, expectation and intimidation. (The look on Malden's face when John sees Jimmy after a skating accident is a mini masterpiece.) And yet John's affection for his son is unmistakable, too, even as he emotionally manhandles him.
Although John often plays the film's villain, he isn't an evil character, just like baseball isn't an evil game. Fear Strikes Out is ultimately about the danger of obsession, and once the sport is put back in proper perspective, it heals instead of hurts. John and Jimmy Piersall repair their rift as so many fathers and sons have over time, with a game of catch, the same symbolic ritual that would reunite John and Ray Kinsella decades later. It's a touching scene, as both men discover the joy of the game as if for the first time. Equally moving, is the film's final shot, which captures Jimmy from behind as he jogs down a corridor toward a distant (heavenly?) light, ready to return to baseball again, confident now, he says, that he wants to play. After so many traumas, it's hard to see Jimmy's inner peace as guaranteed. After all, baseball is a hard game. It wears down even the strongest of men. But this time Bernstein's score finds optimism where earlier it found only dread. Baseball can be a man's undoing, but it can also be his salvation.