Disturbing; at times mesmerizing and perplexing. M-G-M's own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service of providing hard-to-find cult and library titles on discs has released Something Wild, the 1961 indie drama released through United Artists, starring Carroll Baker, Ralph Meeker, Mildred Dunnock, Martin Kosleck, Doris Roberts, and Jean Stapleton. A harsh, uncompromising look at the aftermath of a vicious rape gives way unexpectedly to a strange, dreamy (and to some viewers, repellant) hostage/romance plot, shot on the seamy streets of New York, and featuring two remarkable performances by the lead actors. No extras for this black and white full-screen transfer.
New York City college student Mary Ann Robinson (Carroll Baker) is coming home from school one evening when she's pulled off the park path into the bushes and brutally raped. Returning home, she destroys all evidence of the attack, even to the point of cutting up all her clothes and flushing them down the toilet, and says nothing about it to her disliked stepfather, Warren (Charles Watts), or her stern, complaining, disapproving mother (Mildred Dunnock). Unable to deal with the psychological effects of the assault, Mary eventually leaves her life at school and at home, and disappears, taking a menial job at a Lower East Side Woolworth's while flopping in a hot, cramped, horrid little flea pit. Mary is unable to interact with her coworkers, like her friendly trainer (Doris Roberts), or with bouncy neighbor Shirley Johnson (Jean Stapleton), a prostitute who lives right outside the flophouse's community toilet. Walking around the city in a daze, Mary Ann decides to end her life by jumping off a bridge (the Manhattan?), before she's stopped by auto mechanic Mike (Ralph Meeker). Kindly Mike convinces Mary Ann to return to his apartment to rest, an invitation she eventually accepts...but when Mike returns home that night, aggressively drunk, she kicks him in the face, badly injuring his eye. She tries to leave the apartment, but it's locked from the inside. When Mike regains consciousness, she asks to leave...but Mike refuses. Has Mary Ann's savior turned into her newest attacker?
An enjoyably "arty" headscratcher, Something Wild didn't do a thing back in 1961 for mainstream critics who attacked it for its deliberately open-ended dramatics and its intense Method sensibilities. Based on the novel, Mary Ann, by Alex Karmel, Something Wild was an indie effort by screenwriter and director Jack Garfein and his big, reluctant Hollywood star Carroll Baker to break away from the glossy, "safe" mainstream fare that was being offered to the Baby Doll sensation. Both members of the famed Actors Studio, where they met and married, Garfein and Baker may have had a limited budget, but that didn't stop them from employing top-notch talent for this shoe-string production. Renowned composer Aaron Copland was engaged for the stirring soundtrack; German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, of Lang's Metropolis, Gance's Napoléon, and Rossen's The Hustler fame, was hired for the starkly evocative lighting, and designer Saul Bass, whose credit sequences for films like Anatomy of a Murder and Psycho were considered works of art in and of themselves, shot Something Wild's brilliant opening credit scenes.
Was all that heavyweight talent, filtered through a storyline and performances saturated in the Method (which some critics by 1961 were already disparaging as clichéd and overrated), thought by critics to be too much firepower aimed at subject matter that could be viewed by the impatient as either sophomoric and illogical, or even worse, simply pretentious? It's hard to say, but clearly, the makers of Something Wild deliberately left quite a bit of the movie ambiguous for the viewer to ponder and chew over (and perhaps never get, quite frankly)...and a lot of mainstream U.S. critics didn't like that approach back in 1961. Perhaps it was the clash of Something Wild's two halves―Baker's assault and subsequent retreat to the flophouse, and then her imprisonment by Meeker―with their contrasting tones and aims that grated against the critics. The first half of the film creates a unforgiving semi-documentary exploration of the aftereffects of a rape on a young girl, and her resulting extreme behavioral change, while the second half employs an increasingly tense, dream-like, studio-bound flavor that pits Baker and Meeker against each other in strange dance of repulsion and attraction in Meeker's little basement studio apartment.
Setting the stage for Something Wild's uneasy mixture of realism and symbolism, Saul Bass' opening credit sequence, shot in stark black and white, takes the faces of real New Yorkers and their cars and creates patterns of clashing, intersecting lines that give the impression of inhuman conformity and potential, crushing danger. This isn't the sunny, chirpy New York City of Barefoot in the Park. Wasting no time with a lengthy set-up to the conflict, director Garfein opens immediately with Baker's rape, and if some of the symbolism is heavy-handed (the close-up of her crucifix dropping is overdoing it), the force of the act is unmistakable by 1961 standards, with Baker's attacker grotesquely grunting like an animal as the scene fades out. Baker's mostly silent performance after this brutal attack is a remarkable creation: emotionally honest and physically expressive. Gathering herself up after she regains consciousness, she hurries home, hunched over from the pain (and very possibly from the shame she feels), where she shivers on the floor by her radiator. Later, she cuts her clothes up into tiny pieces, flushing them down the toilet before she tries to bathe, having difficulty because of her bruises. Baker, intense and wounded, doesn't sound a false note here; it's an extraordinary portrait of a rape victim's psychological and physical trauma, particularly when seen in context as to how rape and its aftereffects were treated on the screen up to this point.
Baker and her then-husband Garfein continue in this vein, having Mary Ann spiral down into suicidal depression as she begins to "check out" from the world. After fainting on the subway (the crush of people against her body is too much for her), she abandons school (a nice bit of mise-en-scene by Garfein, with Baker on a lonely street, a spiky, threatening fence behind here, as she just leaves her books on a bench and walks away) and her troublesome home and wanders the streets of Harlem and the Lower East Side, before she finds a loathsome flop house for five buck a week (check out Baker looking genuinely started by the pathetic bum sprawled out on the corner). She takes a job at a sweltering Woolworth's and spends her time in her black L-shaped coffin of a room, trying to sleep. Again, this picture of squalor and poverty is noteworthy, with Garfein using real NYC locations (if the inside of her room is a set, it's amazing) and cinematographer Schüfftan's grimy, chiaroscuro lighting to create a suffocating portrait of destitution―not only of the monetary kind, but of Baker's psyche, as well. When the women at her work razz her for being uppity as they perceive her, pressing in on her and playfully pushing her around to make her late for the opening buzzer, she freaks out and runs away, and it's this physical approximation of her original attack that finally sets her on her suicidal course.
Here, Something Wild switches channels, focusing on the psychological battle between Meeker and Baker when he imprisons her in his basement apartment (I suspect if the screenplay had elongated Baker's first half ordeal, and eliminated Meeker's role entirely, having her jump off the bridge as the movie's conclusion, Something Wild would have garnered more general acclaim). Garfein sets up the viewer to believe that Meeker is Baker's proletariat knight in shining armor, gruffly-but-kindly offering her shelter after forcibly stopping her from jumping, and then staging a "meet-cute" reboot as he fixes dinner for her when she finally wakes up (Meeker is terrific here, acting deliberate and sweetly solicitous, jumping up every two minutes to cater to her, while Baker plays the good little girl who cleans her plate and drinks all her milk). But then, Meeker goes out, and when Baker wakes up, he's returned, incoherently drunk (what drove him to this, we never find out). Here, Garfein is careful not to make it explicit as to what Meeker's intentions are (aided by Meeker's equally impressive physical performance): is he trying to actually attack her, or is he clumsily, drunkenly "reaching out" to her, falling on her in a disoriented stupor rather than grabbing her? You can take it either way (although watching the scene again, and taking into account Meeker's later actions, it would seem he's not trying to rape her). Of course that quibbling doesn't matter to Baker, who reacts with terror, kicking Meeker in the face (which will blind him in that eye), and later, such equivocations again seem beside the point when Meeker forcibly keeps Baker locked up in the apartment, refusing to let her leave.
That aspect of Something Wild is the one that critics had the most trouble with: wondering why, exactly, Meeker's simple, vague explanation, "You're my last chance," to her question of why he's keeping her, is enough to motivate the rest of the movie. You can make up a lot of rationales for his behavior, such as...he's a hopeless drunk because he's just as wounded as she is (by something that happened in his past?), and he recognizes another lost soul like himself in Baker. Importantly, however, the movie isn't going to tell you. You just have to go along with the movie's own logic and atmosphere, and that's problematic to some viewers and critics who would prefer having all the motivations neatly spelled out. There are some viewers who will never get past Meeker's actions of imprisoning Baker to make her eventually realize they need each other...and perhaps rightly so they shouldn't. It's certainly a repellant notion outside of moviemaking fantasy (Wyler went for broad class commentary and ultimately horror in The Collector, while Peter Sellers' underrated Hoffman tries for black comedic romanticism). However, Garfein and the two leads do manage to create this otherworldly, drowsy, in-and-out of consciousness feeling to this second half that works (Baker is always falling asleep and then waking to a new development in their "relationship"), conjuring up an inevitable dynamic that allows for Baker SPOILER! to eventually give herself willingly to Meeker (if you're thinking "Stockholm Syndrome" at this point, you may be right...but the movie seems to think otherwise). It looks like many critics in 1961 took whether or not they could rationally accept Baker's final act of "love" as the litmus test for whether or not the movie "worked," but that's a limiting view that completely ignores the success of Something Wild's more accessible first half, while giving rational analysis more weight than the deliberately ambiguous, dreamy, perhaps strangely romantic second half requires.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.