Something Wild (1961)

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 17th January, 2013

One of the more interesting and unexpected revival films I attended last year, Something Wild was released in 1961 to little fanfare and has been largely overlooked until recent public showings at Telluride Film Festival and New York’s Film Forum. I saw it at the BFI London Film Festival as part of the archive strand, with director Jack Garfein in attendance.

Carroll Baker, married to Garfein at the time, plays an intense lead role in Mary Ann, a high-school girl we see raped on her way home in the opening minutes. After Something Wild has immediately announced itself as about a painful and taboo subject, it also makes clear what a restrained and intelligent film it is: Instead of histrionics after the attack, there are slow, quiet scenes – Mary Ann’s quiet determination to get cleaned up, after remembering to take her books home, turn the hall lights off, and close the front door quietly. As scenes progress, we’re still looking at her internalised suffering – one intense sequence shows Mary Ann get progressively queasy as she’s sandwiched amongst men on a train, rocking back and forth.

There are no point of view shots or intrusive music cues – we know what’s on Mary Ann’s mind, and don’t need to be reminded of it. When she withdraws from society, and goes by the assumed name ‘Sylvie Harding,’ indeed her face is harder, and she has lost the girlish lilt in her voice, though she talks so little that Baker for long stretches gives what amounts to a silent performance.

The turning point in the film comes with the intervention of Ralph Meeker as Mike, who saves Mary Ann from harming herself, and then keeps her locked in his apartment – he says for her own good. Progressing through interplay that’s alternately tender, odd and terrifying, Something Wild develops from one type of captivity study to another.

By 1961, Baker had already been in Baby Doll and Meeker had already starred as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly. Garfein was a key player in the Actors’ Studio, the music was by Aaron Copland, and Eugen Schüfftan photographed this in the same year he did his Oscar-winning work on The Hustler.  There was the pedigree to make a hit, but somehow it didn’t work out until this rediscovery. These topics, and the fact that Garfein was a Holocaust survivor who never saw his own story reflected in this material until recent viewings, are covered in Garfein’s Q&A, which I’ve included below. But what I really want to talk about is the ending, which I’ll talk about below that…

The film ends with Mary Ann finding an opportunity to get out of Mike’s apartment and running away, this after his instigating numerous fights, proposals of marriage and refusals to let her leave. She then returns, and the film flashes forward to her mother finding her – living in the apartment, married to Mike, a baby on the way. She seems happy and tells her mother not to worry. As confounding moments go, this was a big one. I wondered if the ending was about Mary Ann continuing to punish herself and withdraw from the world, or if it was simply put in the film to jar us out of expecting an appropriate resolution and keep the material in our minds.

I approached Garfein after the show and found his answer more than a little problematic – his take was that Mary Ann had genuinely found love, and that the film is in large part about how, when something new comes into our lives, it can take us a while to accept it. I think the implication of that is that it’s acceptable for Meeker’s character to keep a woman against her will, because wounded birds don’t know what’s good for them, and of course what’s good for them is the love of a man who asserts it.

If Baker’s character serves as a metaphor for Garfein suffering post-war trauma, I wonder what that says about his relationships with his adopted homeland of America – does he see the country as horrific, yet love it anyway? I also reflect on the fact that the real-life marriage of Baker and Garfein ended in divorce, and how sometimes relationships can be solaces and prisons at the same time, and how stubbornly people can see things in their own ways. But the upshot is, I don’t buy it, and think Something Wild is a gripping and multi-layered examination of people with a crazy – if, yes, memorable – conclusion.