Saturday, May 25, 2013


A Film by Jack Garfein
Review by Don L. Stradley

Carroll Baker in Something Wild
When a movie comes with titles by Saul Bass, a musical score by Aaron Copeland, New York scenery, a controversial subject matter, plus two recognizable stars of the period - Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker - one expects a film with some staying power.
Instead, Something Wild (1961) came and went without much fanfare. To say it was a bust is an understatement; critics reacted to it as if it they'd sat in something slimy.

To say it was ahead of its time isn't accurate; it's a film that owes less to other films than to the existential plays of Sartre and Ionesco. A case could also be made for lumping it in with late period film noir - there are, after all, a lot of shadows and claustrophobia, and Meeker was a noir icon known mostly for his role as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

One could also call it an American attempt at what the Italian neo-realists were doing a decade or more earlier. Much of the movie is silent, with long stretches of Baker simply wandering the streets of New York. The sidewalk salesmen in Times Square appear to be the real deal, as do the people milling about in the crowd shots. Some have tried to hail Something Wild as "a lost indy classic," as it was billed in a showing at New York's IFC Center in early 2007, but even that's a stretch.

Regardless of how you label it, this is the sort of movie you show to five different people and get five different reactions.

Mary Ann (Baker) appears to be an average New York girl, going to school and living at home with her mother and step-father. We know nothing else about her. Early in the film she is brutally raped in a park. She doesn't report the attack, but grows depressed. She can no longer take her mother's badgering, so she moves out and finds a job in a store. Her new apartment is in a cramped tenement, with loud neighbors and a creepy landlord. Her job is unpleasant; the other girls in the store think she is standoffish.

One day she walks to the Manhattan Bridge and considers jumping into the East River. Mike (Meeker), a disheveled mechanic, arrives in the nick of time and stops her from jumping. He invites her to stay with him until she feels better. Then he tells her he doesn't want her to leave. In the matter of fact tone of a psychopath, he tells her, "I like the way you look here." She pleads with him, but he merely says, "You're my last chance."  

The film was directed by Jack Garfein, Baker's husband at the time, based on a novel by Alex Karmel. Garfein, who had survived an Auschwitz concentration camp as a child, had been a wunderkind, finding success on Broadway at age 25. As an Actor's Studio acolyte, he was thought to be an upcoming Elia Kazan. But he also had a rebellious streak. He wasn't interested in typical Hollywood scenarios, and his first film, The Strange One (1957), left Columbia studio head Harry Cohn perplexed by its open ending.

Something Wild more or less ended Garfein's career as a filmmaker. In 2010 Garfein told the LA Times that United Artists hated it so much they "literally threw it away. I couldn't get a job." He returned to the Actors' Studio, founded Actors Studio West, created The Harold Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row in New York City, and directed a documentary about his time at Auschwitz called The Journey Back. He has spent the bulk of his career in France, where he is a revered acting teacher.

Meeker and Baker, both of the Actors Studio, aren't overly indulgent in Something Wild, but Garfein directs much of the film's second act like a stage play, giving the actors plenty of time to react to each other. 
As Mike, Meeker veers from dangerous to pathetic. There's a strong scene where he comes home so drunk he can barely stand. When he clumsily approaches Mary Ann, she kicks him in the face so hard that she puts his eye out. He bellows in agony from the kick, but its the sound of a whipped animal rather than an angry man. Later we see him wearing an eye patch; he doesn't even know she did it. He assumes he lost his eye in a bar fight, which gives us a clue to his life, and the little regard he has for himself. These drunk scenes are strangely poignant; Meeker's falls to the hard kitchen floor are painful.

When he's not drunk, Mike makes meals for Mary Ann, shows her his scrapbook, puts on his best shirt and pants. He even buys a bottle of wine so they can enjoy what he imagines is a romantic dinner. He never quite understands why she doesn't want to be held there against her wishes. When she says she has to go to work, he offers to match what her boss pays her at the store. It's as if he understands Mary Ann on a primal level, as if he too had once considered jumping into the East River. He knows they belong together. He is willing to wait until she sees it, too. 

Meeker, one of Hollywood's tough guys, makes loneliness palpable here. Actors portraying psycho-loners usually emphasize the psycho part. Meeker takes another route. Late in the film, when she finally acquiesces, he gives her a hug. It may be the gentlest, and warmest of all screen hugs. Had Something Wild been more successful, the hug would be up there with John Wayne lifting Natalie Wood at the end of The Searchers, or Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty staggering towards each other through a crowd at the end of Reds. Something Wild may or may not be a lost classic, but Meeker's is a lost performance.

Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, who had carved a career in France during the 1930s (including work with Marcel Carne) was enjoying a strong period in the 1960s, having filmed The Hustler and Eyes Without A Face just prior to Something Wild. He was a sure-handed old master working alongside the young maverick Garfein. Schufftan's camera work here manages to be both gritty and dreamy, whether he's shooting Mike's cave-like quarters, or the sprawling New York nightlife. Since much of the film features Baker walking around in a daze, Schufftan had the challenge of making these scenes worth watching. She seems to come out of crowds like a little bird, the enormous skyscrapers rising up on either side of her like dark, dangerous mountains.

Baker has a difficult role, and for the most part she nails it. She's at her best when she is silent, trying to control herself in the midst of nightmares and anguish. After being raped early in the film she goes home and uses a pair of scissors to shred her clothing. She takes a bath. She sleeps. This is all done in silence. Garfein allows her to take as much time with these scenes as needed.

At the climax of the film, and there is a slight spoiler coming up, she escapes Mike's basement apartment and wanders the streets, basking in the fresh air. She sips from a fountain, buys an apple from a sidewalk fruit vendor, throws a football around with some kids. Then, mysteriously, she returns to Mike. She finds him looking utterly alone and vanquished, as if much more time has passed than we imagined. There's more to this ending, which I won't tell.

Did she feel guilty for leaving him after kicking his eye out? Did she see Mike as a preferable alternative to the hard, crowded world outside? Did she come to understand that they somehow belonged together? Was Garfein, who had survived Auschwitz, making a comment about survival? Maybe it was the hug that did it. Maybe she knew that no one else would ever hug her that way.
A short Wikipedia entry on the film suggests Mary Ann developed Stockholm Syndrome, where one begins to side with one's captors. That's not the answer I'd buy, but it seems as good as any. The ending of Something Wild has always been the film's sticking point. It puts people off and confuses them. I find it brave and fascinating.

Baker had a lot invested in Something Wild. She was a young actress with a growing reputation and an Oscar nomination under her belt for Baby Doll (1957). Her husband was directing. When he disapproved of the soundtrack, she allegedly used her own money to pay Aaron Copeland's fee. When the film was "rediscovered" and made the rounds at a few film festivals in 2007, she attended a showing. As always, members of the audience expressed unease at the film's end.

Baker asked, "Does anyone know why I stayed?"

No one had an answer.

"There you have it," she said.

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