It takes a great director to come up with a movie as bad as Fever Pitch and, in his day, Richard Brooks was a great director. Among Brooks’s films as a director you’ll find titles like Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry, The Professionals, and In Cold Blood. These were all films that took risks and broke new ground and which were willing to defy the conventions of the time. Brooks was a director who told hard-boiled stories that dealt honestly with real-life issues.
Unfortunately, as often happens with great filmmakers, Brooks struggled to remain relevant as he got older. Hollywood’s sensibility eventually caught up with Brooks’s sensibility and then moved past it. While Brooks remained an interesting director, his final films often seemed to be the work of a grumpy old man who just wanted all those young people to stay off his lawn.
Fever Pitch, Brooks’s final film, stars Ryan O’Neal as Steve Taggart. Taggart is a sports writer for The Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He’s been writing a series of stories about a compulsive gambler named Mr. Green. The stories are so popular that his editor (John Saxon) has no problem giving Taggart $10,000 so that Taggart can then give the money to Mr. Green so that Mr. Green can continue to gamble. What anyone, especially the editor of a major newspaper, should be able to figure out is that Mr. Green is actually Steve Taggart.
Taggart takes the money to Las Vegas, where he hits the casinos while also researching the root causes of gambling. On the one hand, Brooks includes a lot of scenes of Taggart listening to real people explain the history and the dangers of gambling, often in the most didactic ways possible. (Hank Greenspun, the legendary publisher of The Las Vegas Sun, appears as himself and shows why he became a publisher and not an actor.) On other other hand, MGM not only produced the film but allowed it to be filmed at the MGM Grand Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Fever Pitch is anti-gambling film that also doubles as a commercial for a casino. It’s like an anti-smoking film that gives everyone in the audience a free pack of Camels.
Steve hooks up with an unbelievable wholesome prostitute played by Catherine Hicks. He also has to deal with several shady characters, including a veteran gambler named Charlie (Giancarlo Giannini) ad a debt collector named The Hat (played by William Smith). Taggart is obsessed with gambling but he doesn’t seem to be very good at it, as he keeps getting beat up and threatened. Eventually, he goes to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and he seems to be ready to admit that he has a problem and that it’s keeping him from being a good father to his daughter. That might seem like the ideal place for the movie to end but instead, Taggart has to try his luck with just one last slot machine.
Fever Pitch is doomed from the minute Ryan O’Neal starts his narration. Nothing about O’Neal suggests that he could be capable of writing a hard-hitting expose about the life of a compulsive gambler. In this film, he doesn’t even come across like he would be capable of reading it. O’Neal is too passive of an actor to be a convincing gambler and his wooden performance clashes with Brooks’s attempts to create a hyperkinetic feel to the Vegas scenes. While everyone in the film is lecturing him about the dangers of gambling, O’Neal sit there with same blank look on his face.
A critical and a commercial failure, Fever Pitch was Brooks’s final film. He died seven years later, leaving behind a legacy of important movies that cannot be tarnished even by something like Fever Pitch.