What do you do about a dying catcher? Robert De Niro plays a sweet, not particularly bright young baseball catcher in 1973's Bang the Drum Slowly but the movie is not so much about him as it is about how his teammates deal with his impending death from Hodgkin's disease. A not particularly profound meditation on death it has some charm in its interplay between the goofy bunch of guys who play for the fictional New York Mammoths.
Watching from the perspective of someone in the twenty first century, it's amazing to see a time when baseball players couldn't afford the top of the line medical treatment and frequently had other jobs. A great catcher who comes out of retirement to train Bruce (De Niro) has taken a job as an English teacher.
Some of the players even supplement their income with petty graft. The film features a fictional card game called "T.E.G.W.A.R." which stands for "The Exciting Game Without Any Rules" but you don't tell the mark that. Basically when some gullible, star-struck lug sits down with two recognisable baseball players already pretending to play the players just make up rules as they go that result in the mark losing his money, relying on the mark being to embarrassed to admit he doesn't know the rules.
Bruce's best friend and at first the only guy who knows he's sick is star pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) who in negotiating his contract raises eyebrows as he requires a clause that he and Bruce come as a package--if they want to sign Henry, they have to sign Bruce too. If Henry's traded, Bruce goes with him. No-one agrees to this absurd requirement and Henry won't explain why he's made it. Then the manager, Dutch (Vincent Gardenia) comes in the room and complains about it at length before telling Henry he'll agree to this this one time because "something in your eyes tells me I've got to."
The film frequently indulges in this sort of magical sentimentality. Character goofiness and irascibility sets the stage and then melts away at the very end of the scene with something that's supposed to stab you in the heart. This movie is one of the films when people started to really notice Robert De Niro and I don't want to suggest he gives a bad performance. But his character is one of the reasons the movie doesn't quite hit it out of the park.
Bruce is pure. He's more humble than everyone else, always ready to step aside, he's happy to sign all his money over to a woman who's obviously just into him for that purpose. He's an average player but he really tries. In most any other actor's hands he would be intensely annoying but De Niro makes him a believable, good hearted young guy. But, again, this movie isn't about him as much as it is about the people around him and most of the movie consists of lines of comedic plot. Like the way everyone else finds out Bruce is dying--Henry finally tells one guy who swears secrecy. Later we find out of course he tells his wife because he tells her everything. She tells another guy's wife who tells him, etcetera, you've heard this one before.
Any movie about someone dealing with a terminal disease is always going to remind me of Ikiru. There you have a more honest contemplation of death because Watanabe is far from pure, not everyone loves him. Bang the Drum Slowly says, isn't it horrible when a really good man dies? Ikiru says, what do you do if you're going to die?