Bang the Drum Slowly (1974)

It’s nice to sometimes have an intimate movie with no blustering madness, no crazy effects, no huge names (for the time, at least!) and no bombast at all. No pretensions or maddeningly complex and luxurious craft, but no signs of amateur work either.

Michael Moriarty (Larry Cohen regular, as I know him) is Henry “Author” Wiggen, a pitcher for the New York Mammoths, and Robert De Niro is Bruce Pearson, a catcher. We begin the film by seeing the two of them walk out doors labelled “Mayo Clinic,” and are soon informed that Pearson is dying. Wiggen uses the clout of his talent and charm to convince the team to take him on with the stipulation that no trades or losses can occur to either of them without the same happening to the other, thus guaranteeing Pearson a spot in the club as well. He makes it a point not to inform anyone as to why he is so insistent on Pearson’s presencem and spends a lot of the movie defending Pearson and his choice to include him.

The team rags on Pearson because he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, as he himself will admit. He’s not great at putting things together, mentally speaking, and is often unable to keep up with his fellow players at mental exercises. Wiggen is not a fan of this approach, especially knowing how little time he has left. Vincent Gardenia (known to me as Mr. Mushnik) is Dutch Schnell, who takes it upon himself, for the good of the club, to discover why it is that Wiggen sticks so close to Pearson, and what it is they spent the summer doing. Wiggen gets more and more creative in explaining away how they spent the time (including a fishing trip to a lake with ice nine feet thick and a hunting trip that they changed their mind about upon reaching it) with Pearson doing his best to keep up with the wild lies and exaggerations.

It’s just a movie, really, about Wiggen and his friendship with and loyalty to Pearson, why he has it and what it means to him, and almost more importantly, what it means to Pearson.

I’ve noted Moriarty recently as being a total nutjob as a human being (mostly thanks to his insane and near-incomprehensible interpretation of Larry Cohen’s Masters of Horror episode Pick Me Up), but he’s a fine actor, especially here. De Niro, unfortunately, continues to show that there is one thing that he simply cannot get around: he is from New York. Pearson is from Georgia, and sometimes has an accent, but De Niro is just unavoidably rotten at them. While he’s good enough that often you can ignore the inappropriate (and occasionally even anachronistic) accent for his characters, it’s by no means subtle. The accent comes and goes, and isn’t very strong to start with. But, all the same, he’s excellent at portraying the timid, naïve and earnest Pearson, imbuing him with a palpable sense of desire to fit in, belong and be accepted. This especially comes trhough in the games of “TEGWAR”–a card game with no real rules, which some might feel is reminiscent of Calvinball formed as a cardgame–which he desperately tries to understand at first and leaving him mocked mercilessly for his inability to do so, then becomes quite good at it once he grasps the concept. His only stupidity, as Wiggen tells him, is that he was dumb enough to believe it when someone called him stupid.

An interesting relationship and an amusing movie and all, with nothing standing out in the ways first mentioned, though nothing really standing out in quality either. But, it doesn’t seem like it needs that. It’s, as I said, an intimate film, and it does just fine at that.

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