The Siren, after musing here several times that she would like to see The Shrike, was able to achieve that goal via the kind offices of a reader. She has no idea why this picture is so goshdarned hard to see. Given that it's based on a 1952 Pulitzer-winning play by Joseph Kramm, the Siren is inclined to finger our old friend the ULP, or underlying literary property, as Lee Tsiantis once explained here. The Siren usually feels bad about writing up movies that are more or less completely out of circulation, but she’s offering some thoughts on this one for several reasons.
One, some patient readers have also expressed interest. Two, it’s interesting in ways that don’t necessarily demand seeing it. Three, it stars Siren nemesis June Allyson.
And what you undoubtedly want to know is, “Is she any good?” Why yes, she is. If you’re a June Allyson fan who hasn’t quit reading this blog in disgust, you’ll admire her on the merits. If you dislike Allyson’s screen persona as the Siren does, then you will probably agree that here we have the definitive June Allyson performance. She’s perfect. That gurgling voice, like an anemic Jean Arthur; that pageboy bob, the demure gaze, the button-nosed girlishness — all of that creating a portrait of a woman who will TEAR YOUR SOUL APART.
Jose Ferrer, who directed and starred in the play on Broadway, knew what he was doing when he cast Allyson as Ann Downs. This gal is subtle. Joan Crawford’s Harriet Craig drifts around her house like an iceberg in search of a liner to sink, and everyone knows she’s a bitch, she’s practically got it embroidered on the sofa cushions. In the few analyses you can find out there of The Shrike, Ann Downs is usually described as a shrew, a different bird from the prey-impaling one of the title, but you get the idea. But played by Allyson, Ann isn’t very shrewish at all. As she torments poor husband Jim (Jose Ferrer, who also directed) right into an entrée of phenobarbitol and a subsequent holiday in the state mental ward, she rarely raises her voice. All her little undermining remarks, even her small displays of temper, are delivered with the same kittenish mannerisms that Allyson brought to everything from Good News to that ghastly remake of My Man Godfrey. It’s pretty seriously brilliant.
Misogyny is a word that the Siren deploys with caution, to avoid lessening its impact; usually a simple sentence such as “The heroine was a complete dingbat” will suffice. Discussing The Shrike without misogyny, though, would be the equivalent of discussing Gone With the Wind without bothering to mention the Civil War. It’s the essence of the movie, an unshakable male conviction that the little woman full of advice for your career is really trying to eat your entrails like an after-dinner mint.
Ann is onscreen plenty, as when she’s visiting Jim in the loony bin, making it clear he must stay there until he’s knuckled under to all her demands. Or, she’s in his flashbacks, bugging him to give her a part in his play (he’s a theater director), carefully clipping out his bad reviews or sweetly bringing up ways he can metaphorically shoot himself in the nuts. Her perspective is nowhere to be found, though. She’s a frustrated actress, but if she’s frustrated that’s her problem. At no point, not even after a miscarriage leaves her barren, does it occur to Jim to tell Ann to get a hobby or just get the hell out of the house. Yeah, yeah, it’s 1955 — she could at least go out to lunch or volunteer at the Junior League or something. Instead, the movie’s attitude toward Ann is summed up by a shrink who’s questioning her, when he asks in a sort of Congressional-hearing tone, “Mrs. Downs, are you familiar with the term, castrating?”
No, no, it’s all about Jim’s suffering, which Ferrer underlines in black magic marker via extravagantly long takes of his own tortured and sometimes tear-stained face. As the director of this film, Ferrer cares about himself, at a suitable distance he cares about the other actors, and that’s pretty much it. The Shrike exhibits Joshua Logan levels of camera cluelessness. At one point Ferrer emerges from a hospital room and walks across a hall that stretches away into a geometric film-noir grid. And the Siren yelled from her cozy perch on the living-room sofa, “You idiot! That’s a great shot! Hold still a second!” But Ferrer keep moving. And that means the camera must, too.
He is, however, good in this, as is the entire cast, including Mary Hayley Bell, a.k.a. Juliet and Hayley Mills' mom, playing an ancestress of Nurse Ratched who’s possessed of a Karo-syrup Southern accent. The Shrike, then, is a well-acted sociological artifact and not really a neglected gem. But if you can track it down, it will give you plenty to think about, including whether Allyson was miscast in all those other movies, and not this one.