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Something Wild (1961)

by Glenn Erickson Jan 10, 2017

DVD SAVANT

Something Wild
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 850
1961 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen 1:37 flat Academy / 113 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date January 17, 2017 / 39.95
Starring: Carroll Baker, Ralph Meeker, Mildred Dunnock, Jean Stapleton, Martin Kosleck, Charles Watts, Clifton James, Doris Roberts, Anita Cooper, Tanya Lopert.
Cinematography: Eugen Schüfftan
Film Editor: Carl Lerner
Original Music: Aaron Copland
Written by Jack Garfein and Alex Karmel from his novel Mary Ann
Produced by George Justin
Directed by
Jack Garfein

 

After writing up an earlier MOD disc release of the 1961 movie Something Wild, I received a brief but welcome email note from its director:

“Dear Glenn Erickson,
Thank you for your profound appreciation of SOMETHING WILD.
If possible, I would appreciate if you could send
me a copy of your review by email.
Sincerely yours, Jack Garfein”

Somewhere back East (or in London), the Actors Studio legend Jack Garfein had found favor with the review. Although his Something Wild has been rediscovered more than once, the show has never caught on in a big way. I think it’s because it’s just too pure of an item — a show that sticks close to its controversial story idea. It may feel pretentious here and there, but it doesn’t compromise itself with a conclusion that clears up all issues and returns the world to ‘normal.’ I’ve always felt deeply moved by Garfein’s brand of subjective filmmaking, which approaches everything through human observation. The only Normal in this marvelous movie is the unpredictability of life.

Something Wild is one of the best American ‘art’ films ever and surely Carroll Baker’s most impressive starring role. The United Artists release was showcased for approval in New York, but elicited mostly thoughtless and impatient criticism from the high-toned critics. The New York Times called it ‘shattering’ but also terrible and tedious. Most of us caught up with it on Network TV in the early 1960s, where it blew holes in our impressionable minds. It’s always had something of a life on TV, but in relatively poor quality. Now it looks and sounds great.

Today many would label its story as non-PC — perhaps offensively non-PC. It proposes a twisted 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 is 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 1958 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 shot at directing came at United Artists, which saw possibilities in a racy urban drama starring Garfein’s wife, actress Carroll Baker. Several seasons earlier Baker had become a sensation in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll. Although Baker hadn’t continued with similar roles, she was still typed as a sex object. UA’s David Picker didn’t expect a visual 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.

The movie closely follows Mary Ann Robinson (Carroll Baker), a sensitive and vulnerable college student. Mary Ann undergoes a nervous breakdown when a stranger rapes her on the way home from school. Outwardly untouched, she communicates nothing to her nervous mother (Mildred Dunnock) or her stepfather Warren Gates (Charles Watts). Now feeling increasingly alienated by the 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 a high 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 serial killer story. We feel Mary Ann’s terror during the rape and understand her obsessive behaviors afterwards. But when she voluntarily allows a strange, powerful man to take her into a dark basement room, we know for sure that she’s taken leave of her senses — it guarantees disaster more than jumping off the bridge. But everything in Something Wild goes against the norm.

The show is a slightly arty drama about alienation and despair, a movie about psychology told with images, not words.. Mary Ann is 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 initially shy but optimistic. The sight of two lovers on the subway cheers her as she skips on the way home. But after her attack she feels profoundly alone. As Mary Ann doesn’t explain her actions 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 with something audience-pleasing and racy (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 gritty 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 alienated from herself, that there’s something sick about her.

The unresponsive Mary Ann is met with hostility from her new acquaintances: the blowsy, sordid neighbor (the marvelous Jean Stapleton, looking incredibly unpleasant), the sinister, venal landlord (Martin Kosleck of The Flesh Eaters). The shop girls at Woolworths respond with petty cruelty. They’re led by Doris Roberts (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Honeymoon Killers, Everybody Loves Raymond), who sketches her entire character in less than a minute’s screen time. Feeling completely apart from other people, Mary Ann looks at the water of East River and sees an easy solution to her problem.

We aren’t surprised that audiences didn’t go for Something Wild. Its 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 whining at 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, but we do care for her. The cop is played by Clifton James, a fine actor from independent ’60s pictures who later become famous as a cartoonish cop.

Some material is a little predictable. Mary Ann experiences a weird dream with a couple of surreal, disturbing images that are perhaps too cut & dried for viewers with little patience for warmed-over Dalí. The film’s real strength comes when the lonely Mary Ann and Mike struggle to communicate in the confined space of Mike’s room. Something happens in the relationship — 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, and this show is an exception.


Criterion calls the movie ‘a complex exploration of the physical and emotional effects of trauma,’ and various people reaching for answers bring up the phenomenon of the Stockholm Syndrome. Although Mary Ann’s reaction to the rape is exceedingly well depicted, the movie is far more than a literal case study of a violated woman. It’s really about the modern crisis of angst and alienation — a desire to escape from people, reality, one’s own body, the horrible world itself. Some viewers will label Something Wild as a crude rape fantasy, that says that women need to be dominated and that brutish men are only expressing their need for companionship. That’s a predictable reaction, but it misses the film’s point altogether. This is not a movie about a woman who goes nuts and has to find her way back to ‘Normal,’ to the way things were. In this crazy world, things happen. People change, make choices and find relationships that can’t be explained in twenty words or less, that other people (or a judge) aren’t going to understand. Garfein and co-writer Alex Karmel tried to build the conventional reaction into the picture through Mildred Dunnock’s heartbreakingly uncomprehending mother: “You mean you’re not coming home?” If the movie has a lesson, it’s that with people, anything can happen.

Garfein and co-writer Alex Karmel are saying that people are essentially lonely and needy, and will form whatever relationships will sustain them in a particular situation. Everything in our culture tries to define what’s Normal, but anybody who claims that specific rules govern 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 than this one in The Naked City.

Something Wild will remind many viewers of William Wyler’s kidnap drama The Collector. But almost the same ‘non-PC’ situation crops up in Pedro Almodóvar’s Spanish comedy ¡Átame! (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, 1990). An earnest, lovesick mental patient (Antonio Banderas) kidnaps a drug-taking suicidal porn star and holds her prisoner until she comes clean and falls in love with him. Even though the film is an unadulterated farce, to some degree based on Don Quixote, audiences in 1990 rejected it on grounds of misogynistic sexism. People always say that they’re for artistic freedom, yet still demand that their subjective personal values be upheld.

The way Mike and Mary Ann get together is not a ‘meet cute’ that anybody would endorse. But how many relationships stay together because one partner will put up with anything for simple financial security? When artists depict ‘depraved’ relationships, it’s often to put forward radical ideas of how alienated people relate to one another. The Japanese films Manji, Moju and In the Realm of the Senses are far more extreme in their depictions of depraved relationships. Yet they are legit expressions of The Human Condition. By contrast Something Wild is humane and gentle with its emotionally crippled couple. I’m always moved by the conclusion. It may not follow any given convention, but it seems right for these particular people at this particular point in time.


This Carroll Baker is nothing like the actress from The Carpetbaggers — her Mary Ann is as fine a performance as one could hope for. Baker’s body language at times seems almost expressionistic — when people feel low, they indeed act low, bowing their heads and bodies. Ralph Meeker most often plays brutal tough guys with a convincing sadistic edge; here he’s an urban working slug halfway to becoming a Morlock. Sixty years of exploitation movies have conditioned us to fear that Mike could be big trouble, maybe even a serial killer. His little room with its extra cot could very well be a prepared trap, in case he found the ‘right woman’ to kidnap. It’s a tough character to play, as Mike clearly wants something better and has few ways of expressing himself. Who gives guys like him a chance? Meeker starred in the original Picnic on Broadway, something we wish had been recorded on film. He captures a definite Travis Bickle quality, begging to be redeemed by the right person. In a key scene toward the end Mary Ann finds Mike alone and waiting in despair, convinced that the police will soon arrive. Their reunion is not conventionally romantic, but it’s as moving as the one at the end of On Dangerous Ground.

Garfein’s collaborators on Something Wild have a high pedigree. Behind Garfein’s delicate but dynamic direction is the great German cameraman Eugen Schüfftan, who was barred from the American camera guilds. Schüfftan shot Robert Rossen’s The Hustler and Lilith, and George Franju’s 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 less well known is Carl Lerner, the editor of 12 Angry Men, Patterns, The Fugitive Kind, Middle of the Night and the champion of New York semi-docu filmmaking, On the Bowery. The exemplary title title montage is by the great Saul Bass. Dynamic New York scenes are set to Copland’s music to form a jarring piece of modernism. It’s completely opposed to the soft-hearted city Valentine montage that begins Woody Allen’s Manhattan.


The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Something Wild is the most welcome disc of the New Year. When the cheap MOD disc came out five years ago, I was almost depressed — it was a cheap encoding of some wretched flat transfer from the 1990s, and even the soundtrack was dull. Criterion performed the remaster itself, bringing out the full beauty of Schüfftan’s images and boosting the soundtrack back to full brilliance. It’s a fine title for the collection — and needs to be distinguished from the 1986 Jonathan Demme picture of the same title.

Criterion’s extras take advantage of the fact that co-writer & director Jack Garfein is still active (!) and as lucid as ever about his film work. The main extra is an extended interview conducted by critic Kim Morgan, who led one of the more recent major revivals of Something Wild. Criterion breaks its usual format of fixating on the interview subject — frequent cutaways to Ms. Morgan’s reactions seem out of place. Otherwise everything we hear and see is gold. Carroll Baker contributes a too- brief but fascinating audio memoir of her time at the Actors Studio, and proudly lists the top directors that gave her fine roles. The other video extras concentrate on the Actors Studio itself. In Behind the Method critic Foster Hirsch tells the story of the school’s creation and the top talent that studied there. Master Class with Jack Garfein is an actual taped lecture by Garfein from 2014, focusing on the actor’s technique.

Critic Sheila O’Malley provides an insightful insert essay. Maybe, if we’re really good, Criterion or another boutique disc company will rejuvenate and rescue two more United Artists gems, Alexander Singer’s A Cold Wind in August with Lola Albright and Frank Perry’s disturbing nuke scare picture Ladybug Ladybug. The release of Something Wild gives us hope that anything is possible.



On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Something Wild (1961) Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New, restored 2K digital transfer supervised by director Jack Garfein; conversation between Garfein and critic Kim Morgan; audio interview with actor Carroll Baker; Behind the Method, a new interview with scholar Foster Hirsch on the Actors Studio; Master Class with Jack Garfein, excerpts from a 2014 recording of one of the director’s world-famous lectures on acting technique; Insert essay by critic Sheila O’Malley.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 7, 2017
(5305wild)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.