Richard Brooks’ “Fever Pitch”: The Erratic End to an Erratic Career

“You could live a long time and never see anything as awful as ”Fever Pitch,”‘ begins Janet Maslin’s November 1985 New York Times review of director/writer Richard Brooks’ final film. While she’s not entirely wrong, I am saddened that there is not a wider audience for this movie, at least among camp/cult film lovers. I am also perplexed that equally ill-received, financially lukewarm Brooks efforts are available on Netflix and/or DVD and “Fever Pitch” is not.

I got significantly more enjoyment out of “Fever Pitch” than, say, Brooks’ second-to-last film “Wrong is Right,” which is an ambitious but hopelessly convoluted satire of right-wing politics, wimpy left-wing presidents, weapons trading, guerrilla warfare and tabloid television, all mashed together. It’s just plain bad, as is the 1969 soap opera “The Happy Ending,” starring Brooks’ then-wife Jean Simmons as a cheating alcoholic housewife. Yet both are on Netflix, and “Fever Pitch”–which is bad in wonderful, fresh, exciting ways–is not. (NOTE: In a few months, on the centennial of Brooks’ birth, I will write a much longer entry on ALL the Brooks films not on Netflix, with a much more in-depth look at his career trajectory).

Brooks–who died almost exactly 20 years ago–had a long, sometimes rocky, enviably independent career, starting as a nomadic journalist selling slice-of-life stories to papers, and gradually moving up to sportswriter, daily radio journalist at NBC and a steady for-hire screenwriter at Universal, Warner Bros and MGM. The latter company bankrolled his directorial debut, “Crisis,” in 1950, and he stayed loyal to the studio until 1960, when he left to make “Elmer Gantry”–the Sinclair Lewis adaptation he’d tried producing for years–his own way. And that’s how Brooks generally did things for the rest of his career: his way.

But even the most respected auteurs eventually fall prey to the money-obsessed ways of Hollywood. When “Wrong is Right” flopped at the box office, Brooks needed a low-budget, smaller-scale picture that appealed to a wide audience–in this case, gamblers–to prove that he still had the goods to turn a profit. Ironically, it was MGM–the studio he’d left 25 years earlier as a show of creative freedom–that wound up producing “Fever Pitch.” And though it’s clearly a Richard Brooks project–painstakingly researched, breathlessly shot, somewhat moralistic but laced with hard-boiled dialogue–it literally has MGM written all over it; their casino is plugged shamelessly throughout the movie. Hence, the movie is against compulsive gambling but balks, at the end, at entirely denouncing it, given who financed it.

With his doleful eyes, matinee idol face and constantly pleading expression, Ryan O’Neal is the champion of playing ridiculous roles in earnest. A more sardonic screen actor would never read such alternately baroque and cliched lines without simultaneously winking at the audience. But in “Fever Pitch” (and in “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” Norman Mailer’s screamingly over-the-top adaptation of his own book), O’Neal’s voice quivers with seriousness; his eyes flash the same “Take me seriously!” desperation. Even when he’s supposed to be hung over and beaten down and unshaven, he just comes across like a slightly tired soap opera star. But I wouldn’t want it any other way: it’s that very hangdog, humorless approach that catapults “Fever Pitch” into truly bizarre bad-movie territory. By playing it straight, O’Neal highlights just how overwrought and misguided the screenplay to “Fever Pitch” is.

“Fever Pitch” is sloppy right from the opening credits. Big, brassy, Roaring Twenties jazz blasts over cheaply superimposed images of dice, printed money, a spinning roulette wheel, old ladies playing slots. Then we hear O’Neal’s sports reporter character, Steve Taggart, in impassioned voice-over, as he describes “the sport that became a national epidemic…that sport is gambling.” (Habitual drinkers, take note: you want a new drinking game? Watch this film and take a big chug every time the word “gambling” is uttered, and I assure you you’ll have some fun memories–that is if you don’t black out). As he keeps narrating, we see nostalgic shots of Downtown Las Vegas in all its sleaziness (this was before the Rodeo Drive-esque Strip was erected): tacky neon palm trees, go-go dancers jiggling their boobs. Then we see Taggart (supposedly a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist) in action, as he interviews the head of a sleazy casino, often frequented by mafiosos and other degenerates. It’s supposed to be hot, “breaking” news when O’Neal, shocked, hears first-hand from the casino owner that $200 billion is spent per year on gambling.

To keep O’Neal from writing a negative spin on casino life, the owner sends a part-time cocktail waitress, part-time prostitute (Catherine Hicks) to keep O’Neal entertained, but he’s so damn earnest he doesn’t sleep with her, just takes her on a gambling spree as a good-luck charm. (“Let’s crack their walnuts!” Hicks exclaims before they hit the tables). In pure Hollywood fashion, every number she picks at roulette and craps is a winner, but when she feels her good luck beam fading, she calls it a night, while O’Neal foolishly stays out and loses everything.

“He lost,” Hicks says to the casino owner, as O’Neal slouches to his room.

“How do you know?” asks the owner.

“Losers make lousy lovers!” she says chirpily, in one of many hilariously nonsensical lines. If they didn’t sleep together, he’s not exactly a lover, right?

From there on out, the story just grows more and more outrageous. A Charles Bronson-ish bookie shows up at Taggart’s hotel to collect debts, while he’s sunbathing by the pool; as an ominous Jew’s harp plucks away, the bookie pushes Taggart’s face into the lounge chair. Later, that same bookie is seen playing an intense racquetball game with a pro football player (the camera somehow follows the ball’s trajectory), who like Taggart is apparently in debt to the bookie for thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, Taggart convinces his editor to let him write an entire series on gambling; he pretends that he’s profiling a “professional” gambler named Mr. Green, but he’s obviously writing about himself. Still, he manages to fool his editor, even after he asks the newspaper for $8,000 (!!) in additional expenses. This would be riotously implausible even if Taggart was a good writer, but he’s clearly a dismal one; describing the timeless, universal prevalence of gambling, he writes: “Warlords in ancient China gambled over wives, concubines and animals. Roman soldiers gambled for the robe of Jesus Christ.” And so on.

Eventually, we start to find out some darker aspects of Taggart’s past. He has a little daughter at a Catholic boarding school who loves him madly (“Papa, I love you madly!” she says on the phone) but he’s so married to his job–and lately, to gambling–that he doesn’t devote much time to her. We find out that his debt problems more or less killed his wife; while driving in a rainstorm to deliver his bookie $5,000 of her money, she crashed the car. In the most hideously crass, hamfisted scene, Brooks cuts from a glimpse of her car crashing to a shot of the bookie slamming a knife into Taggart’s hand. “Where’s the money”?” the goon keeps asking, and then Taggart gets the phone call about his wife’s accident. He pulls the knife out of his hand, starts swinging the phone around like a lasso, bellowing: “She’s hurt! She’s hurt! She’s hurt!” I definitely rewound that part a few dozen times.

There’s more, so much more. There’s a rival gambler named Peru (Giancarlo Giannini), who’s so slick he plays seven games at once at a single blackjack table. There’s a few chase scenes with the bookie and an even meaner bookie, one of whom Taggart hits on both sides of the head with–I kid you not–a salt and pepper shaker! The blow from the shakers is enough to put the bookie in a neck brace. There’s plenty of shots of old women winning the jackpot at a slot machine, seconds after Taggart has lost everything; when one of the ladies faints, a security guard says, matter-of-factly: “She got slot machine bladder. Forgot to go to the toilet!” There’s the following dialogue exchange, between two thugs: “Why, you wop!” “I happen to be Irish.” “That’s the worst kind of wop!” And in the funniest sequence, Taggart goes to a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting, while in the next room, his daughter sits with the gamblers’ children. Just try to keep a straight face when the cherubic ten year-old boy vents with rage about his dad’s addiction.

Anyway, Taggart goes straight from the GA Meeting to the racetrack, as his sponsor pleads with him to stop; he gets in a fight and shoved into a garbage can and winds up covered in mustard and trash. Returning to the casino, he places one coin in a machine that says “Place a Bet for God,” surrounded by missionaries; of course he wins, and then his sponsor basically just stands by as he miraculously wins and wins and wins, getting totally out of debt. This outcome is what drove critics like Roger Ebert into a frenzy; in his zero-star review, he called the bait-and-switch happy ending “sick.” For me, though, the movie is too enjoyably farfetched to take offense at any misguided lesson.

As with most cream-of-the-crop cult films, the campy joys of “Fever Pitch” don’t only lie in the bad acting and dialogue. The way Brooks jumps from scene to scene is wonderfully tacky; “Fever Pitch” is one of those movies where the same conversation between two people–which would in real life take about five minutes–is shot in three different locations, at three different times of day, as if it carried on for hours. And the camera is a lively, schizophrenic player in the whole thing; it never lets up. Brooks tends to zoom in hyperactively to the exterior marquee of wherever his scene is going to be set; then the shot immediately fades out and, BAM, we’re in the sleazy interior. (In fact, for the drinking game I described before, there could be two teams: one team drinks whenever the word “gambling” comes up, and the other drinks when there’s a sporadic fade-out).

Brooks tried to distance himself from “Fever Pitch” a few times. “It was a much better picture before they [the studio] took it away from me,” Brooks said in a late interview with Patrick McGilligan, published in “Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s” in 1991. This is an odd claim on his part given that—especially late in his career—Brooks seldom if ever let anyone but lead actors read his scripts or meddle in his productions.

In a 1982 interview, he said, “It’s not easy to make even a bad movie.” And clearly, Brooks worked hard on “Fever Pitch,” even if it wasn’t a pet project. In a 1985 promotional piece on “Fever Pitch,” he revealed that he and O’Neal spent three years “researching” the film—that means they gambled. (“He taught me how to lose,” O’Neal said, in the same piece, of his director.) Indeed, Brooks admitted, in the same piece, to having had a personal gambling addiction of his own. When he ventured down to the Florida Keys to write the script for “Key Largo,” director John Huston invited him to play poker. “I wound up losing $9,000, which was $1,000 more than I made for the whole screenplay,” he said.

Brooks probably anticipated that there would be an uproar about the forced happy ending, because he said, in a Gambling Times Magazine interview, that he made the ending of the film more upbeat after the gamblers he spoke with groused that “gambling movies are always about losers.”

The excellent new biography, “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks,” written by Associated Press reporter Douglass K. Daniel, features snippets of an interview with actor Patrick Cassidy, who played a bit part in “Fever Pitch.”  To get Cassidy in the right emotional zone, the 72 year-old director—whose notorious on-set tyranny and wrath was not mollified by old age and a bad hip—reportedly slapped Cassidy across the face. According to the book, he prefaced the slap by saying, “What I’m going to do to you now doesn’t mean I don’t love you.” Typically, Brooks’ scary approach to actors proved efficient: post-slap, Cassidy’s big scene was shot in one take.

I asked Daniel why his segment on “Fever Pitch” was so short, so devoid of the juicy behind-the-scenes details that he otherwise fills the book with. He replied, “To me, analyzing it would be like beating a dead horse. Once you have a story that doesn’t work, there’s not much to say. There’s not much point in spending a lot of time with movies that don’t matter.”

“That said, the movie is watchable. It’s not boring,” said Daniel. “Someone close to Brooks told me that the movie was put together so he’d have something to do.”

As for me, I’m just happy that Brooks never made another film, that his final product is the quintessential culmination of all the fast-paced, hard-boiled energy that saved Brooks’ best films and all the overstated earnestness that sank his worst ones.

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One thought on “Richard Brooks’ “Fever Pitch”: The Erratic End to an Erratic Career

  1. A fine “read” of a so-bad-it’s-good movie. I look forward to Sam’s take on other Richard Brooks films.

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