Thursday, June 30, 2011
THE SHRIKE (1955). Director: Jose Ferrer.
Joseph Kramm's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Shrike debuted on Broadway in 1952, where Jose Ferrer not only directed but played the lead part of Jim Downs. Three years later Ferrer did double duty again on the film version. Jim Downs is placed in the mental wing of a hospital after trying to commit suicide. He is estranged from his wife Ann (June Allyson), and in love with a woman named Charlotte (Joy Page). After initial success as a theater director, Downs fell on hard times and was down to his last few dollars. While he had very good reasons for feeling despair, the doctors have to see him as someone who may be dangerous to himself and others. Not only is this sensitive, intelligent man virtually held captive by the mediocrities on the staff, but it becomes clear that his wife -- who wants him back under any circumstances -- holds all the cards. If he wants to go free, he has to renounce the woman he really loves.
In the play Charlotte did not appear at all, but the film was opened up to include flashbacks both of Jim and Charlotte and of his courtship of, and marriage to, Ann. Ann isn't given much chance to express her point of view in either the play or picture, but it's really Jim's story. The movie tacks on a somewhat hopeful ending that is entirely unrealistic. It also has a dumb scene -- not in the play -- in which a psychiatrist, sensing the vindictive nature of Ann under her surface concern and sweetness, essentially compares her to a bird called a shrike, which is not only awkward but even more unrealistic than the phony ending. [And for several reasons goes against the grain of the play as well. The playwright felt no need to elaborate for the theater audience.]
All three leads -- Ferrer, Allyson and Page -- give fine performances, although it's hard to imagine that Allyson was as good as Judith Evelyn in the play. Still, Allyson is not at all a bad choice for the role, as she manages to fool almost everyone into thinking she's as sweet and uncomplicated as she seems. There are good supporting performances from Will Kuluva, Mary Hayley Bell, Martin Newman and others as hospital staff and patients. Ed Platt plays Downs' brother, worried about what having a mental patient in the family will do to his career.
Yet for all the good stuff, there's something unsatisfying about both the play and the film. One suspects the play was forgotten because its characters were [as compared to, say. O'Neill and Williams] rather ordinary and under-developed, and because of its depressing wind-up. And by making compromises, the film doesn't deliver the wallop it should, and wound up being forgotten as well. Too bad, because both projects are certainly worthwhile if flawed, and the film is certainly worth seeing. The Shrike is chilling in its depiction of how a person has to prove his sanity in a mental ward even as he's nearly being driven crazy by the very situation he's in. Jim discovers that he's been offered a life-saving job which might end his career and financial woes, but the good doctors won't let him keep the appointment!
Isobel Bonner, who played Dr. Barrow both on Broadway and in the film, was married to the playwright, Joseph Kramm. [In the movie, Ann is an actress who gave up her career when she got married.] She was performing the same part in Los Angeles the same year the film was released, when she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died right in a middle of a scene on the stage.
Verdict: I always thought Allyson was a shrike at heart! ***.