Something Wild: Last Chances

Some films, even very good ones, tell you up front what they are, what they are up to, what they want. But there are others that resist clarity, that beckon, haunt, persist, nag. Something Wild (1961), directed by Jack Garfein and starring Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker—in two career-best performances—is the latter kind. It does not coddle, moralize, or explain. It is stark, brutal, and—startlingly, considering the subject matter—occasionally very tender, even funny. What does the future have in store for the main characters, Mike and Mary Ann, after the film ends? The question is extremely urgent, clamoring in your head at the close. Mary Ann’s devastated mother (Mildred Dunnock) whispers to her daughter: “What has happened? What has happened?” We feel the same way.

Alex Karmel’s 1958 novel Mary Ann, on which Something Wild is based, starts with a newspaper-style sentence of reportage: “One night in March, on her way home from chorus practice, Mary Ann Robinson was raped by an assailant whose features she could not make out in the darkness.” Something Wild starts here too. The rape as filmed is harrowing: Mary Ann’s gleaming cross pendant lying in the dirt, a close-up of her skirt pulled up over her thigh, two sharp rocks pressing into her skin. To start a film with such a scene was unheard-of then and is still radical now. There is no dialogue until fifteen minutes in, one of Garfein’s many bold choices.

Mary Ann’s reactions to the rape—taking a long, hot bath; wrapping herself in a blanket and shivering by the radiator; cutting up the dress she was wearing into small pieces and flushing them down the toilet; telling no one about it—are astute observations about PTSD following sexual assault, making this film (along with Ida Lupino’s 1950 Outrage) far ahead of its time. The rape changes Mary Ann’s understanding of the world. As Karmel describes in the novel: “Violence had possessed her; she no longer belonged to herself but to it.” Her body language changes overnight. “Everyone is dirty,” Mary Ann snaps when her mother complains about the “dirty” people moving into the neighborhood. Suddenly, her mother’s worries about walking alone at night enrage Mary Ann. Of course it’s dangerous to walk at night in New York City. It always was dangerous, and nobody warned her.

And then one day, Mary Ann puts her books down on a park bench and walks out of her old life, never looking back. She rents a room in a tenement. She gets a job. Her coworkers think she’s stuck up. She recoils when people touch her. Mary Ann—exhausted and sick—wanders up onto the Manhattan Bridge, peering down into the blinding water below. A man yanks her back from the railing. This is Mike (Ralph Meeker), a mechanic who just happened to be walking by. He takes her back into the city, to the door of his basement apartment. He invites her in to rest while he’s at work. Mary Ann, in a state of collapse, agrees. He lets her sleep, he feeds her. And then . . . he locks her in. Mary Ann spends months as his prisoner, in a standoff with this strange, lonely man, fending off his drunken lunges (kicking his head, in one attack). Mike tells her, in a simple, matter-of-fact way that is both tragic and terrifying, “You’re my last chance.”

There are so many striking moments in Something Wild, simple gestures, evocative silences: Mary Ann buttoning up her cardigan after the rape, fingers trembling. Mike cutting pictures out of magazines, gluing them into a scrapbook. Mary Ann lying on a cot during a heat wave, pushing back and forth the wet towel hanging above her head, water dripping onto her pale face. Mike staring thirstily at Mary Ann as she gulps down a glass of cool milk. “You don’t know who I am,” Mary Ann says to Mike, when he asks her to marry him. He asks, “Who are you?” In the close-up of Baker’s face that follows, she looks detached, startled, trapped. She doesn’t know the answer. Maybe she wouldn’t have known the answer even before the rape. Either way, the possibility of finding out who she is was taken from her by the man who raped her in the park. The film’s ending, and the look on Mary Ann’s face as she stares up at Mike, is deeply ambiguous.

Like many actors in the early 1950s, Baker gravitated toward the Actors Studio, a place so famous that a star like Shelley Winters submitted to the audition process (a fact that impressed Baker enormously), and an even bigger luminary, Marilyn Monroe, moved to New York to attend Studio sessions and study with the legendary Lee Strasberg. Baker came out of a vaudeville/chorus-girl background. She was adrift in New York and eager to learn. On her first day at the Studio, she met a young “insider” named Jack Garfein, who took her under his wing. The two of them were eventually married. A big break for Baker in the competitive Studio environment was when she replaced the pregnant Eva Marie Saint in the workshop of A Hatful of Rain, a new play by Michael Gazzo, directed by Frank Corsaro and starring Ben Gazzara and Anthony Franciosa. When the play moved to Broadway, Winters took Baker’s part, but Baker’s involvement in the workshop (as well as playing Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter in Giant) helped her land the plum lead role of Baby Doll Meighan in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, a 1956 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, costarring an Actors Studio roster: Karl Malden, Eli Wallach (in his film debut), and Mildred Dunnock. Baby Doll put Baker on the map for all time. The notorious block-long billboard showing her lying in a crib sucking her thumb, and the condemnation of the film by the Catholic Legion of Decency, helped up the film’s profile, but—as Baker wrote frankly in her memoir—had negative effects on her career. She had good parts in The Big Country and How the West Was Won, but the sixties represented a floundering period for her, as she turned down a parade of empty sexpot roles. Her appearance in 1987’s Ironweed was thrilling for her fans, but any summing-up of Baker’s career has been entirely incomplete, due to the long unavailability of Something Wild. Her performance as the nearly wordless and traumatized Mary Ann is a towering achievement.

Something Wild was Garfein’s second film, the first one being The Strange One in 1957. Both were personal projects, developed with friends at the Actors Studio. Neither was a box-office success; neither found an audience. Garfein never directed another film after Something Wild, focusing on his work as a theater director, heavily involved in the Studio (he founded the directing program at Actors Studio West) as well as teaching his own acting classes. A Holocaust survivor, the Czechoslovakia-born Garfein had arrived in America with an inchoate desire to be an actor. His first acting teacher in New York was the legendary Erwin Piscator, who nudged Garfein away from acting and toward directing (and it took some nudging). When Garfein became involved with the Actors Studio, he worked closely with Strasberg. Garfein—like Konstantin Stanislavski, like Yevgeny Vakhtangov, like Strasberg—was obsessed with the mystery and “problem” of the actor’s creative process. In his 2010 book Life and Acting: Techniques for the Actor, he observes, “I had, through the years, discovered in [Edvard] Munch’s work how the essence of events and the essence of things can reveal itself in ordinary, everyday actions—that our inner, wordless anguish; contradictory feelings; and involuntary sensations may be conveyed voicelessly, through concrete human expressions.” Garfein disagreed with Strasberg’s obsessive focus on emotion. (And in this he was not alone. Robert Lewis, one of the Actors Studio’s founders, said, “If crying was a sign of a great actress, my aunt Tilly would be the greatest actress in America.”) This interest in the “essence of things” revealed through “concrete” human expression is hugely evident in his two films.

Garfein has said that when he read Mary Ann, he was “impelled” to turn it into a film. Decades later, when he presented Something Wild on TCM, he remarked, in connection with the terrors of his childhood, “It took almost half a century for me to realize what the film was touching in my own life.” He and Baker had set up their own production company for The Strange One, a very new idea at the time, and financed both films themselves, Something Wild in partnership with United Artists—the “studio” without a studio, whose investments in productions outside the system brought them major success, even as the industry fell apart in the sixties. For that film, they were able to gather an astonishing cast and crew, all willing to work for scale or less.

The production is a roll call of giants: cinematography by Eugen Schüfftan, original score by Aaron Copland, opening credits by the great Saul Bass. Everyone believed deeply in the project (Copland agreed to compose the score after he saw the rough cut). Schüfftan, another refugee from Nazi Europe, had created the revolutionary visual effects in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, using huge tilted mirrors to give the urban landscape a sense of dizzying scale and depth. During his brief time in Paris before moving to America in 1941, he shot Marcel Carné’s poetic and moody Port of Shadows, his cinematography making the meaning of the film’s title manifest in the loneliness, the strangeness, the darkness of that gloomy underworld. He was known for blending poeticism and realism, the surreal and the documentary, a style that works perfectly with the urban terror of Something Wild. His street photography in the film captures New York in a way that had not been done before. There are times when the city seems frighteningly empty, an eerie landscape void of humanity. At others, the crush of crowds presses in so insistently that it’s a claustrophobic nightmare. Something Wild, among its many other merits, is a great New York movie, capturing the city—and its different neighborhoods—at a certain moment in time.

The second half of the film, however, takes place almost entirely on the one set that was built—Mike’s basement apartment—and Schüfftan is equally brilliant at utilizing the cramped space, its bars of light and shadow, its one mostly empty room, its depressing little kitchen. That awful place becomes a stage inhabited by two actors, in a battle of stamina between prisoner and captor. And as upsetting as the scenes are, there is an excruciating joy in watching such accomplished performances. Meeker became a star when he appeared on Broadway in 1953 as the sexy drifter Hal in William Inge’s Picnic. Before that, he had replaced Marlon Brando in the original production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Known today mostly for his turn as Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s phantasmagorical, paranoid noir Kiss Me Deadly, Meeker had a good career playing various heavies, as well as one of the condemned soldiers in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Mike, his character in Something Wild, is a precursor to Travis Bickle, “God’s lonely man,” the beast in his lair. “What’s wrong with me?” Mike asks Mary Ann when she turns down his marriage proposal. He sounds truly confused. In his first attempted assault of her, Meeker rocks on all fours on the carpet, blind drunk, bucking his head up and down, snuffling air out of his nose like a bull about to charge. Very few actors are even capable of going as deep as Meeker does here. In a revelatory performance, he makes this troll under the bridge an almost tragic figure, pathetic as he works on his scrapbook and then shyly shows it to his prisoner.

Something Wild opened in 1961. Audiences recoiled from it. Most American critics rejected it—Jonas Mekas being a notable exception. (Otto Preminger told Garfein that if he had shot it in a foreign language with English subtitles, the critical reaction would have been quite different.) Released during the dying throes of the studio system, it was an independent film before the American independent film “movement” had begun. Just two years before, John Cassavetes’s Shadows had shown the possibilities for developing work outside the studios, but it was still too soon to make any meaningful inroads. United Artists barely publicized the film, and it vanished from theaters soon after it opened. Something Wild was for decades a forgotten movie. To Actors Studio fans, to Carroll Baker fans, it existed as a kind of Holy Grail, nearly impossible to see outside of rare television broadcasts. In 2011, the film’s fiftieth anniversary, it was finally released, in a bare-bones DVD edition. But even before then, things had started to shift. Film historian Foster Hirsch has done much for the film, writing about it and presenting it at screenings. Critic Kim Morgan has been championing the film for years, presenting it on TCM as a guest programmer in 2010, programming it at the Telluride Film Festival in 2012 and 2014. All of this urgent advocacy has had a cumulative effect in audience awareness of this important film.

When Copland turned eighty, in 1980, the city of New York threw him a gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he asked for Something Wild to be screened at the event. The screening went over as well then as it had in 1961. People were bored, uncomfortable, turned off. After the screening, Copland said to the disappointed Garfein, “As far as this film is concerned, Jack . . . just live long enough.” Live long enough to see audiences come around. Live long enough for the world to catch up. Finally, over fifty years after Something Wild’s original release, that time has come to pass.

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