US / 88 minutes / bw / Universal‑‑International Dir: José Ferrer Pr: Aaron Rosenberg Scr: Ketti Frings Story: The Shrike (1952 play) by Joseph Kramm Cine: William Daniels Cast: José Ferrer, June Allyson, Joy Page, Kendall Clark, Isabel Bonner, Will Kuluva, Joe Comadore, Billy M. Greene, Leigh Whipper, Richard Benedict, Mary Bell, Martin Newman, Herbie Faye, Somar Alberg, Jay Barney, Edward C. Platt, Fay Morley, Jacqueline de Wit, Adrienne Marden.
Jim Downs (Ferrer) is admitted to the mental ward of the city hospital following a suicide attempt; with him comes his worried wife Ann (Allyson), who wants to be by his side always, even when the doctors would prefer she not be, and who keeps repeating how her love for him is undying. Doctors Barrow (Bonner) and Kramer (Barney) are impressed by her supportiveness, even when it emerges that Jim and Ann have been separated for some while, and that Jim’s heart now lies with a new girlfriend, Charlotte Moore (Page).
Because Jim attempted suicide and suicide is regarded as a violent crime, and because he’s been brought to a public hospital, he falls into the category whereby he can be held until the psychiatric staff believe him to be no longer a threat to other people. (I have no idea if this was the law at the time but, if so, the law was being a ass.) Further, the person who really has control over his freedom is Ann: he can be released into the custody of his wife, not into that of Charlotte, whom the staff obviously consider to be just his bit on the side.
Charlotte (Joy Page), forever stalled from visiting Jim.
After he’s made a physical recovery from the effects of the phenobarbital he swallowed, Jim’s transferred to a psychiatric ward populated by other people with whom it’s evident there’s really not very much wrong: the extrovert musician Major (Comadore), the suave middle-aged Greek‑‑American John Ankoritis (Kuluva), the elderly Mr. Carlisle (Whipper), the Cuban‑‑Irishman Carlos O’Brien (Newman), the rather faceless Sam Tager (Faye) and the only one who seems genuinely a danger to the public, the vicious, violent, racist Schloss (Greene). This little community is ruled with a rod of iron by a termagant called Nurse Wingate (Bell), whose decisions are—although she does not realize this—ignorantly arbitrary and completely heartless. The seemingly tough orderly Gregory (Benedict) is in fact the only one who shows much compassion toward these patients.
Jim is eventually interviewed by a senior psychiatrist, Dr. R.S. Bellman (Clark), and in a very long flashback we’re told the story of Jim’s married life with Ann. They met not long before Jim got his big break as a stage director; he was praised to the skies by the critics as the Great New Thing and the play was a smash Broadway hit—and Ann too won praise for her performance in a supporting role. His next play was a hit, too, although this time Ann wasn’t in it. He and his producer had managed to attract Hollywood star Katherine Meade (de Wit) to the production, and she refused to tolerate Ann among the cast. Ann tried to get around this veto by manipulating Jim’s position as director, but at last had to call it quits.
Early married happiness between Ann (June Allyson) and Jim (José Ferrer).
More and more Ann interfered in Jim’s professional life, and partly as a consequence he started to helm plays that proved to be flops. After one last catastrophic failure, realizing he might never work productively in the theater again and that he couldn’t stand living one minute longer with Ann, he walked out and found a sleazy room in a slum region of NYC. And then, a while later, he bumped into Charlotte, who had earlier been the star of one of those flops . . .
Jim (José Ferrer) tries to explain himself to Charlotte (Joy Page).
Bellman’s eyes are opened by this tale. It seems clear to him that Jim’s mental health is fundamentally okay but that he’s been driven to despair by his marriage to a woman who, however benevolent her motives might seem to herself and others, has in fact been disastrously destructive of her husband’s well-being. The shrike is a cute little bird with a startlingly vicious modus vivendi. As Bellman later explains to his secretary, Miss Raymond (Marden), “The shrike is intentionally destructive—designed by nature that way. But in people? Well, who’s to say where and why the destructiveness starts.”
In one especially effective sequence, Charlotte (Joy Page) berates Jim (José Ferrer) for being too frightened to give more of himself to her, for always hiding behind a wall of reserve.
Meanwhile Ann has been visiting Jim whenever she’s allowed to; the hospital authorities are forbidding Charlotte to see him. He’s permitted another visitor, though: his brother Harry (Platt, in a great small performance). Harry, an insurance salesman, tells Jim that if he really wants to get out of this hell he’s got to do what Harry has to do every day of his working life: just suck up all the stuff that revolts you and keep a fixed grin on your face. The way for Jim to regain his freedom is to pretend he’s up for a reconciliation with Ann, that he’ll stop seeing Charlotte, and that he thinks the doctors are really spiffy for having returned him to normality. Once he’s out, he can always make a break for another state, ditching Ann for a second time.
It works. In one of the most effective sequences in a movie that’s full of such sequences, we witness Jim’s final interview with a trio of senior psychiatrists—Barrow, Bellman and Schlesinger (Alberg). For long periods the focus is purely on Jim’s face as the three doctors try to trip him up over his plans for the future. We see him doing his best, aware that he’s sometimes blundering, as the doctors’ voices interrupt and override him from off-screen, their interruptions seeming like jabbing spears aimed to puncture his self-possession. At the end, though, he convinces them he’s well enough to be released immediately into the custody of his wife. Left alone for a frew moments, he breaks down: he’s exchanging one hell for another. How can he recreate his life from here?
The movie’s based on Joseph Kramm’s Pulitzer-winning stage play The Shrike, a Broadway smash in which Ferrer likewise starred (also directing and producing); the actress starring opposite him as Ann in that original production was Judith Evelyn.
If you know about the stage origins, the movie does display some signs of them; there are several longish sequences that each occupy a single set. But Ferrer’s skill as a director manages to make sure we don’t notice this unless we think about it; the flow of his tale—not to mention the strength of Allyson’s portrayal of Ann—pulls us inexorably onward. Although our sympathies lie of course with Jim (and Charlotte), Allyson manages to make Ann a character that’s both sympathetic and repellent—just like the shrike, the bird to which Bellman has compared her. And, late in the movie, when Bellman interviews her, holds her up for herself to look at and suggests she might need some kind of psychiatric counseling, Allyson conveys powerfully how this is the first time it’s ever dawned on Ann that her actions might possibly, viewed from the outside, be seen as destructive and wrong.
Ann (June Allyson) hears the echoes of the suggestion by Bellman that she might herself benefit from some psychiatric counseling.
It would certainly be possible to view The Shrike as an exercise in misogyny—after all, Ann is being by her own lights a loyal and supportive wife and is being reviled by an ungrateful husband—but to go in for that sort of cheap politics is to miss the point. The movie could equally well have reversed the sexes, so that a husband unwittingly destroyed his wife’s aspirations; what The Shrike‘s about is the way that spouses, even while they believe they’re acting solely out of love, can tear their mates apart.
Cinematography and soundtrack (by musical director Joseph Gershenson and composer Frank Skinner) are essentially journeyman stuff—we don’t really notice either—but direction, screenplay and Allyson’s fabulous rendition of the Shrike ensure this is an entirely gripping piece. Somehow it managed to receive no notable awards; viewed today it’s little short of astonishing.
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