The Avengers: Mandrake

Mandrake (Episode 03-18, January 1964).


I had intended to try to keep to the order in which these episodes aired, but I cannot hold my tongue about one of my favorite Avengers episodes.

In Mandrake, Strange things have been going on in the graveyard of Tinby, including the burial of an abnormal number of men who were never in Tinby in their lives. Steed’s interest is piqued with the death of a work colleague and his burial in the same graveyard. Steed and Cathy set about investigating the deaths, which leads them into a seedy world of a two-man Murder Inc., made up of Dr. Macombie (John Le Mesurier) and Roy Hopkins (Philip Locke), who help heirs to organize the murder of prominent men.

Mandrake has so much to recommend it, I don’t know where to begin. The secondary cast elevates the episode – Le Mesurier and Locke are both excellent character actors in their element here (they pop up in earlier and later episodes, making them among the most dependable doppelgängers in the series). The addition of Annette Andre as Judy, a shopgirl who works for Hopkins, provides some of the most charming repartee in the episode. She and Steed develop a quick flirtation with such easy, light chemistry it almost makes one wish that Andre had come back a few more times (she does crop up in a much later episode of spin-off series The New Avengers, but has no scenes with Macnee).

Mandrake also balances its two leads admirably, giving Steed and Cathy plenty to do together and separately. Cathy goes off to interview the vicar of the Tinby church where the murdered men have been buried, while Steed trails Hopkins and flirts with Judy. Steed roughs up the son of his old friend, and Cathy has an exciting graveyard fight with the local gravedigger – a fight which ended with Blackman accidentally knocking out her opponent. While there’s a bit of a dearth of Steed and Cathy banter to be had here, it’s more than made up for by the exchanges between our leads and the secondary characters.

Sharp and tightly written with excellent pacing, Mandrake really stands at the top of the Cathy Gale series, and is arguably one of the best Avengers episodes period.

The Avengers: Killer Whale

Killer Whale (Episode 02-26, March 1963).


Killer Whale, the final episode of Season 2, takes Steed and Cathy into the underground world of boxing and its unlikely connection to the perfume trade. Steed has discovered a possible link between the boxing ring belonging to ‘Pancho’ Driver (Patrick Magee) and the illegal smuggling and sale of ambergris, a key ingredient in the production of perfume. Steed enlists Cathy and her young boxing protege Joey (Ken Farrington) to infiltrate Pancho’s ring and discover who’s doing the smuggling and how. Meanwhile, the bowler-hatted one draws the more cushy job of hanging around a perfumier and fashion designer’s establishment, under the guise of obtaining a wardrobe for his “niece,” to see where the ambergris is actually going. This being The Avengers, complications naturally arise, including murder, imprisonment, and the use of Cathy’s judo skills.

In some ways, Killer Whale is a last hurrah for the more underworld-themed episodes of Season 2. Season 3 will be a bit more refined – though not without its deviations – and occupied far more with the British upper-classes. As such, Killer Whale is a nice transition, with the charming Joey facing off against the less-charming Pancho, and expanding upon the connections between a criminal underworld and the clean-cut upper world of fashion designers.

Although the boxing angle is quite fun, the best parts of Killer Whale take place at the perfumier’s. Steed has a slightly tense tete-a-tete with a posh young man who keeps referring to him as “sport” – another chance to underscore class conflict, as the same young man turns out to be the most vicious criminal of the bunch – as well as the chance to make eyes at the attractive young models wandering around. Steed certainly draws the plumb job on this one, his not-inconsiderable charm in full force right alongside his inherent ruthlessness. Cathy meanwhile has to do the dirty work, which usually gets her either imprisoned or tied up.

Killer Whale concludes the second season on a fairly high note, with our two heroes getting along pretty well (and Cathy moved into a brand new apartment). When they return in Season 3, two against the criminal factions, they’ll do so with slightly less conflict but, oddly enough, slightly more distrust. Season 3 will feature Steed possibly turning traitor more than once, and a tightening of their friendship that will make them, in the end, the most complicated relationship that The Avengers will ever feature.

The Avengers: Bullseye

Bullseye (Episode 02-04, October 1962).


Only four episodes into Season 2, Cathy Gale gets her first opportunity to strike out on her own in Bullseye. Faced with a murder at a small arms company that may be tied to gun-running in Africa, Cathy joins the company’s board of directors as a shareholder, plunging herself into industrial espionage and conspiracy. Steed is on hand but remains solidly in the background for this one, only showing up once or twice to tease Cathy and smoke cigars.

Cathy uncovers a series of nasty coincidences as more fellow board members are murdered, narrowing the range of suspects to about three by the end of it. It’s all tied in with a takeover bid by industrialist Henry Cade (Ronald Radd), who intends to purchase the company and carve it up at a profit. Cade is suspect number one, as each of the directors dies after meeting with him, but there are several others that are equally nasty pieces of work: Doreen Ellis (Judy Parfitt, who pops up pretty consistently through The Avengers), and Mr. Young (Felix Deebank), a ladykiller with a smarminess all his own.

Giving Honor Blackman her own episode this early in the season was a gamble for The Avengers (regardless of production order), and it’s a shame she didn’t get a better one. As with a number of these early episodes, Bullseye suffers from the combination of a preponderance of plot, and dialogue that fails to drive it. Steed’s absence does not have to harm an episode (check out The Big Thinker if you don’t believe me), but in this case poor Cathy has very little to occupy her time. The villains are fairly clear from the outset, and the ending both unsurprising and anti-climactic. Cathy has no opportunity to show off her fabulous judo skills (despite setting up a villain with whom she could easily grapple), and much of the interesting action takes place off-screen.

However, Bullseye is not all bad. On a second viewing I actually found it more enjoyable, with at least two scenes that create excellent tension and remind us that Cathy is quite the badass. Ronald Radd’s Henry Cade is simply delightful, an irascible millionaire entirely at home in his business. The episode pops when he’s onscreen. Finally and as always, the few scenes between Cathy and Steed have an energy all their own, as their combative relationship makes even a friendly meeting into a battle of the sexes.

So put Bullseye in the “miss” category. It isn’t a bad episode by any means, but there’s not a great deal to be said for it.

Fear Strikes Out (1957)

Fear Strikes Out (1957)


Fear Strikes Out might be one of the few baseball movies to feature very little baseball. No games are depicted in full; there are no exciting montages of teams winning or losing, and there’s little romantic aggrandizement of America’s pastime. Yet the film also purports to tell the true story of a great ball-player, and deals openly and honestly with the pressure that comes with being a sports star.

Fear Strikes Out tells the story of real-life outfielder Jimmy Piersall (Anthony Perkins), who played for the Boston Red Sox from 1953-58. Piersall had a public breakdown during the 1952 season, entering a mental hospital where he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The film is based on Piersall’s autobiography, and elides over some of the less charming aspects of his personality (including one instance where he spanked a teammate’s four year old child in the Red Sox clubhouse). This is perhaps the story as Piersall would like it to be known, about a talented outfielder beset by familial pressures and mental illness. As such, it might behoove us to take the historical accuracy of the film with a grain of salt.

Passing the sketchy biographical details, what we have left is a drama with a baseball background. The film opens with the adolescent Piersall at home in Waterbury, Connecticut, where he’s already a driven baseball player. He’s both encouraged and dominated by his father (Karl Malden), a former ball player who never made it to the majors. Raised with only baseball on his mind, Jimmy grows up to be a socially awkward young man but a brilliant player, attracting the attention of Red Sox scouts during his senior year of high school. He’s drafted and heads off to Scranton to learn how to play in the majors, where he meets apparently the only positive force in his life: Mary (Norma Moore), who becomes his wife.

As Jimmy moves towards the majors, though, his nervousness and self-criticism (fueled by his father) become more pronounced. Terrified of failure, he also cannot celebrate his own success – he loves baseball, but does not seem to have any fun on or off the field. His constant refrain is that he’s not good enough. He fails to make the Red Sox right out of Scranton, but when he’s finally drafted as a shortstop (instead of an outfielder, which he was trained for), he nearly has a breakdown. The paranoia only increases when he actually becomes a major league player, clashing with his teammates and coaches, constantly frightened of judgement and inadequacy.


The center of the film is of course Tony Perkins, who plays Piersall with the same haunted gaze and tragic aura that would make him so effective as Norman Bates, three years later. Jimmy never seems relaxed, standing or playing with hunched shoulders, his body tight and face taut with controlled emotion. He builds slowly from a nervous boy to a man in the throes of total collapse without overacting the part – and his breakdown, when it comes, is both expected and heartbreaking, as he shrieks into the stands, begging to be told he’s good enough.

Karl Malden as John Piersall has the unenviable task of making a controlling man into more than caricature. He pulls it off though, imbuing the domineering father with a sense of tragedy all his own. The viewer never doubts that he loves his son, or that he is the main actor in Jim’s mental collapse. He and Jim share an intense, co-dependent relationship that luckily never makes one or the other of them overly sympathetic. It would have been easy to turn John Piersall into the villain of the piece, and Malden helps to keep that from happening.

The women of the film are minor characters, and as such are fairly lackluster. Jimmy’s mother, whose own mental illness is briefly hinted at, is a non-entity, while his wife Mary is both his major supporter and a little too forgiving of all the men around her. One has the impression that she recognizes the over-dominance of the father early on, but seems incapable of even suggesting to her husband that he sever ties.

The only truly glaring flaw in Fear Strikes Out comes when Jimmy finally makes it to the Red Sox. The movie makes it appear as though the Red Sox manager is taking a lot from a rookie ballplayer – a young man who cannot get through a game without insulting or instructing his own teammates, and even begins a fight in the dugout. We’re made to understand that the Red Sox continue to put up with Jimmy because he’s a brilliant ballplayer, but his brilliance is rarely in evidence on the field. A few longer sequences of Piersall actually playing ball, proving just how good he really is, and it would have been easier to accept that a major league team would keep him for as long as they did.


The flaws of the film could be put down to the relative inexperience of director Robert Mulligan. Fear Strikes Out was his first feature film in a career primarily focused on television. Mulligan would go on to direct some excellent, if maudlin, films, including To Kill A Mockingbird and Inside Daisy Clover. He makes excellent use of aural and visual cues that set the viewer on the field beside Jimmy, focalizing scenes through him in an experience of nerves and paranoia. Unfortunately, his directing does nothing to expand upon an understanding of Jimmy’s talents as well as his fatal flaws.

An early and honest examination of mental illness, in the context of one of America’s most beloved sports, Fear Strikes Out largely avoids maudlin sentimentality or easy answers. It also reminded me that baseball is the most individual of team sports. We focus on stats of individual players as much as we focus on whole teams, and scream to take players out of the game. Attention falls onto a batter, a pitcher, a fielder, and a single mistake can make or break a game (and a career). It’s an aggressive, quiet, strange sport, and aggressive, quiet, strange men have to play it.