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One of the best American 'art' films of the 1960s and probably Carroll Baker's most impressive starring role, Something Wild elicited thoughtless and impatient criticism from the high-toned critics of the time. Today its story would be labeled as non-PC, for proposing a romance predicated on an unusual circumstance. A man holds a disturbed woman prisoner. When she regains her freedom she doesn't run to the nearest policeman. The man is not condemned and the woman is not considered a victim. The movie instead expresses the idea that the chaos and ugliness of the world can drive people mad. The only sanity available is in caring relationships... which can take any form.
Director and co-writer Jack Garfein was a concentration camp survivor who became a prominent member of New York's Actors' Studio. He made his name with his stage play End as a Man, an unflinching drama about evil doings in a military school. Columbia produced a movie version called The Strange One, starring the play's major discovery, actor Ben Gazarra. But Garfein's studio contract was cancelled when he refused to change the film's ending to please Columbia head Harry Cohn. A second directing shot came at United Artists, which saw possibilities in a racy urban drama starring Garfein's wife, actress Carroll Baker. Several seasons earlier Baker had starred in Elia Kazan's sensational Baby Doll. UA's David Picker didn't expect a visually told tone poem of a movie that went for minutes at a time without dialogue; according to Garfein UA didn't get behind the picture. Yet Something Wild is an intense, emotional film experience. It combines an experimental New York feel with the kind of intimate acting associated with The Method.
College student Mary Ann Robinson (Carroll Baker) is sensitive and vulnerable. She undergoes a nervous breakdown when a stranger rapes her on the way home from school. Outwardly untouched, Mary Ann communicates nothing to her nervous mother (Mildred Dunnock) or her stepfather Warren Gates (Charles Watts). But finding herself increasingly alienated by the suddenly harsh and impersonal city, Mary Ann makes a sudden and radical change in her life. She abandons her books in the park and rents a filthy room in a boarding house. The swarthy landlord (Martin Kosleck) cheats her on the rent. She finds a job at Woolworth's but is ostracized by the other shop girls when she refuses to socialize. In despair, Mary Ann prepares to throw herself off the Manhattan Bridge. She's stopped by Mike (Ralph Meeker), a coarse and uncommunicative mechanic who offers her a place to rest in his dingy room. Mary Ann accepts, and sleeps while Mike is away at work. But when he returns, Mike won't let her leave. He likes having her there... she goes with the room.
Today Something Wild would be a launching point for a suspenseful serial killer story. It is instead a slightly arty but never pretentious drama about alienation and despair, centering on the terrors experienced by a sensitive soul overwhelmed by what psychologists call the 'blatant indifference' of the world -- a sickness that preys upon lonely city dwellers in particular. Mary Ann is shy but optimistic -- the sight of two lovers on the subway cheers her -- but after her attack she feels profoundly alone. As none of Mary Ann's actions are explained in dialogue, we must stretch to understand why she chooses to drop out of school. Are the lectures now irrelevant in her changed world? When she moves into the horrible rented room, is she trying to disappear? Does she no longer feel worthy of her surroundings? What is she looking for, exactly? I assume that viewers more sensitive than I will have even better theories.
Something Wild entered new territory for near-mainstream moviemaking in 1960. UA was experimenting with a few art pictures foreign and domestic, occasionally hitting the jackpot (Never On Sunday) but mostly breaking even. Something Wild was promoted with misleadingly sexy images of Carroll Baker taking a bath. Those scenes are actually rather sad, and remind us of the tragic Irina in Val Lewton's Cat People. Garfein's street level images of ugly NYC streets are different than Jacques Tourneur's expressionist pools of black, but the effect is the same -- Mary Ann clearly feels that there's something sick about her.
It is fairly clear that Mary Ann's hostile new acquaintances encourage her suicide attempt: the blowsy, sordid neighbor (Jean Stapleton, looking incredibly unpleasant), the sinister landlord (Martin Kosleck, the former player of Nazi roles), and even the petty, cruel shop girls (led by Doris Roberts of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and many other notable roles).
We aren't surprised that audiences didn't go for Something Wild. The second half in Mike's grimy one-room apartment becomes a frightening, mostly wordless psychodrama. Mary Ann is almost raped again, and when she lashes out to defend herself, Mike suffers a disfiguring injury. Any 'normal' picture would break up this horror-ordeal with scenes of a clean-cut New York detective slowly working his way toward a rescue. Instead, Garfein shows Mary Ann's mother dealing with a weary civil-servant cop, who does his best to cut through the mother's hysterical demands. Mary Ann couldn't possibly depend on this woman for very much in the way of emotional support.
Mary Ann experiences a weird dream with a couple of surreal, disturbing images that are perhaps too cut 'n' dried for viewers with little patience for warmed-over Dalí. But something happens in the relationship between Mary Ann and Mike -- he desperately needs somebody to care for, to share a life with him. The acting of Baker and Ralph Meeker in these scenes, where neither person knows how to express their feelings clearly, is remarkable. Meeker's movie roles rarely showed his range as an actor, but this show is an exception.
I wouldn't blame viewers for rejecting Something Wild on the basis that its drama is patently false, a rape fantasy that says that women need to be dominated and that brutish men are just expressing their need for companionship. Fair enough. But I'm always moved by the conclusion of this picture. It may not follow any given convention, but it seems right for these particular people at this particular point in time. Besides, anybody claiming that specific rules can still be applied to relationships is selling something. People find companionship and love in any number of ways, and many don't ask anybody else for permission to break the rules. Are Mike and Mary Ann made for each other, or is the film a twisted tragedy? I don't know and don't care. Mary Ann makes her choice and seems content to give it a go, so more power to her. There are many much worse stories in The Naked City. 1
Something Wild bears a gilt-edged artistic pedigree. Besides Garfein's delicate but dynamic direction, we have cinematography by the great German cameraman Eugen Schüfftan, who was barred from the American guilds. He shot pictures like Lilith, The Hustler and Eyes without A Face, all movies with phenomenal B&W images. The equally dynamic soundtrack score is by none other than Aaron Copland. I like it so much, I bought it when a CD was offered a few years ago.
Much more obscure is Carl Lerner, the dean of independent New York film editors who cut 12 Angry Men, Patterns, The Fugitive Kind, Middle of the Night and the champion of New York semi-docu filmmaking, On the Bowery. The title montage of New York scenes, set to Copland's music, is a jarring piece of modernism completely opposed to the soft-hearted city Valentine montage that begins Woody Allen's Manhattan. It's an early film-designing job from the graphic artist Saul Bass.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of Something Wild is an acceptable but not exceptional encoding of what should be a stunning B&W film experience. Probably meant to be screened at 1:66 or wider, the full frame transfer fudges some compositions, and the show looks as if it were sourced from a fairly old transfer. The same dirt and unsteady splices are in the Saul Bass title montage, as were present on MGM copies I saw fifteen years ago. The soundtrack is clear enough, but surely could sound better if given more than an indifferent transfer. I really hoped that this one would be picked up by Criterion, or remastered for MGMHD, as has been Robert Parrish's superb Robert Mitchum western The Wonderful Country.
No extras are present, although I remember seeing a really jolting trailer when Something Wild premiered on network TV back in the early 1960s. This doesn't give much hope for ever seeing UA rarities like Frank Perry's disturbing nuke scare picture Ladybug Ladybug in a quality transfer. C'mon MGM, keep re-transferring your interesting UA library pictures!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Something Wild rates:
1. I thought it fairly outrageous that supposedly liberal audiences in 1990 or so would reject Pedro Almodóvar's Átame (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!) on grounds of misogynistic sexism. Almodóvar's story has similarities. An earnest, lovesick mental patient kidnaps a drug-taking suicidal porn star and holds her prisoner until she comes clean and falls in love with him. Neither filmmaker has anything against women, far from it. But they don't worry about people that will interpret their fantasies as blanket statements about the sexes. People of all stripes say that they're for artistic freedom, and especially when their personal values are being upheld.
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T'was Ever Thus.