Love means never having to say you’re sorry, or so we were told by Ali McGraw in Arthur Hiller’s famous 1970 adaptation of the popular Erich Segal novel, which now plays like the romantically inclined equivalent of the current generation’s The Notebook (2004). The statement could easily have been a perverse (and more appropriate) touch in Jack Garfein’s obscure 1961 sophomore feature, Something Wild, a title which would eventually be usurped by Jonathan Demme for a 1986 film. Garfein, once married to Carroll Baker with whom he had two children, was a prominent member of the Actors Studio and a protégé to Elia Kazan. His two film features, including his debut, the Ben Gazarra headlined The Strange One, were independently conceived melodramas with stridently morose psychological shadings, while both unfortunately and unfairly lapsed into obscurity thanks to poor critical reception and a misunderstanding of traumatic subject matter.
Leaving university one night, Mary Ann Robinson (Baker) makes her way home, taking what seems a routine shortcut through a park in the Bronx near where she lives. Viciously raped by a man who pulls her into the bushes, she brushes herself off and sneaks into her parents’ home, desperate to avoid explaining her disheveled state to her shrewish mother (Mildred Dunnock) and her preoccupied stepdad (Charles Watts). She attempts to return to life as normal without telling anyone, but she begins experiencing panic attacks and loses interest in her studies. Abandoning her books on park bench one day, she trots off through Harlem and spontaneously rents an apartment on the Lower East Side, determined to start anew doing anything anywhere. But she can’t escape her own thoughts and just as she’s about to jump of a Manhattan Bridge, she’s saved by Mike (Ralph Meeker), a lonely mechanic who scoops the young woman up and lets her rest in his basement apartment. Only, when Mary Ann wakes, she can’t leave, locked inside with no one nearby to hear her cries. Returning late at night in a drunken stupor, Mary Ann tries in vain to locate his keys and instead angrily kicks him in the head, which causes the mechanic to lose his eye. Sobering up the next day, he confesses he needs Mary Ann to stay with him and doesn’t want her to leave. Feeling she has no real choice in the matter, she relents.
Something Wild is an astute depiction of what would come to be known as Stockholm Syndrome, a term officially coined in 1973 by Swedish psychologist Nils Bejerot as a way to describe the bonding mechanism between a captor and hostage. A more famous example of this would thrust the terminology into the pop culture zeitgeist a year later when the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst, who would eventually become a willing participant in their criminal proceedings and publicly sympathize with SLA’s movement. However, the psychological complexity established by Carroll Baker in her compelling performance (with credit also due to novelist Alex Karmel, adapting his own novel Mary Ann for his one and only attempt at screenwriting) is much more intricate than any of the cinematic treatments directly addressing Patty Hearst (including Paul Schrader’s 1988 attempt to do so starring Natasha Richardson as the fated heiress).
This restoration of Something Wild arrives at an appropriate moment, as we enter the notion of a post-feminist universe and the provocative statement delivered by Isabelle Huppert in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016), about a woman who takes control of sexual abuse by owning it, instigating repeated rape sequences to gain emotional and mental control over her troubled perpetrator. It’s a shame the film performed so poorly at the box office because it’s easy to imagine what more Garfein and Baker could have accomplished before their marriage dissipated. The untoward public response concerning the film’s rape scene, which is one of many sequences capturing priceless details, like a sharp rock protruding into her exposed undercarriage as she’s pressed roughly into the earth, contributed to halting Baker’s rising fame. She’d only recently scored her sole Oscar nomination for Kazan’s incomparably lascivious Baby Doll, scripted by Tennessee Williams in a role initially rumored for Marilyn Monroe, and contract woes with Warner Bros. would find her passed up for plum parts in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Three Faces of Eve in the same period (both roles which netted actresses Elizabeth Taylor and Joanne Woodward considerable awards glory, winning the latter an Oscar).
Her oblivious glow is quickly thwarted, and hence forward DP Eugene Schufftan’s glorious on-location frames of Brooklyn swallow her up. Shot on location in New York City, Something Wild manages to visualize urban angst quite brilliantly. Shufftan, who worked on the visual effects for Fritz Lang’s early classics, like Metropolis and Die Nibelungen, would become the favored cinematographer of Georges Franju, contributing to the incredible eeriness of Eyes Without a Face (1960), and winning his only Oscar the same year as Garfein’s film for his work on the Paul Newman drama The Hustler. The film takes on striking angular perspectives, capturing Baker from below as she creeps up the stairs and into her bed so as not to disturb her parents after her trauma. Soon after the requisite bath sequence, where she numbly cleanses her wounds and methodically destroys her clothes, the young woman’s world of privilege quickly melts away. Obviously distant from her parents, especially her incredibly repressed mother (the usually bird-like Mildred Dunnock), who is embarrassed when her daughter is brought home in a police station after fainting on the subway, Baker’s Mary Ann abandons her remaining comfort zones for the Lower East Side, disappearing into the city.
It’s here where Something Wild presents New York as an urban jungle, beginning with the grizzled landlord Martin Kosleck, who couldn’t be any creepier when remarking on the amount of water Mary Ann uses, necessitating ‘extra charges.’ Getting a job in a department store also can’t provide her with redemption, as other women mistake her quiet demeanor for haughtiness. Two women who later becomes indelible television stars populate the periphery here, including Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker of “All in the Family”) as a rather unbecoming neighbor lady, while Doris Roberts (Marie Barone of “Everybody Loves Raymond”) makes her on-screen debut as a viciously inclined colleague, whose cruelty contributes to Mary Ann’s suicide attempt. And then there’s the already gone-to-seed Ralph Meeker as cinema’s most complicated savior/captor, a sympathetic alcoholic who comes to care for the broken young woman unconditionally…at least as long as she doesn’t escape his apartment.
And it’s hard to understand the complexities of their burgeoning ‘relationship.’ Obviously, had she not suffered a life altering trauma, Mary Ann would never have been introduced to Meeker’s mechanic, much less allow him to trap her inside his home. Her cruel maiming of his face is equally understandable, and her teary admission of the deed reveals a partial understanding of the real glue which sometimes keeps people together—guilt (likewise, to realize Garfein survived Auschwitz as a teenager looms heavily on the psychological posturing here). But although they seem to come to a sincere sort of understanding, this bizarre ballad of Mike and Mary Ann is far from a happy one, and in a world demanding cinema to deliver sheer, unadulterated escapism, it’s no wonder audiences refused to embrace something so difficult to not only consume but comprehend.
Criterion presents this newly restored 2K digital transfer in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, supervised by Jack Garfein, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Schufftan’s wonderous cinematography transforms New York into an alien universe, a stark contrast of the bustling romanticism or, conversely, the gritty degradation representing the dueling social spheres often committed to film (and note the stylized opening credit sequence courtesy of Saul Bass). The title also features one of the last scores from the great 1940’s composer Aaron Copeland (Oscar winner for William Wyler’s 1949 title The Heiress), while Criterion includes a number extra features.
Criterion recorded with twenty-six minute conversation between Garfein and film critic Kim Morgan in New York in August, 2016. Garfein discusses the Actors Studio, the creation of the film Something Wild and personal anecdotes about his connections to the lead character in the film.
Carroll Baker is on hand for this fifteen minute interview recorded by Criterion New York in September 2016. The illustrated audio interview finds the actress discussing her approach to the challenging personification of Mary Ann Robinson.
Behind the Method:
Historian Foster Hirsch was interview by Criterion in September 2016 for this twenty minute segment where he discusses the roots of Method acting along with Jack Garfein’s importance to the Actors Studio and how Something Wild is one of the most significant projects to come out of this establishment.
Master Class with Jack Garfein:
This nearly forty minute 2014 recording follows Garfein over two days as he teaches one of his world renowned acting classes.
One of the significant cinematic achievements to come from within the independent system attempted by New York Actor’s Studio, Something Wild lives up to its name, a psychologically ambitious creature unable to conform to the sensibilities of the period in which it was made.
Film Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
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