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Ignored, misunderstood and poorly received by various moviegoers and reviewers at the time of its release in December of 1961, director Jack Garfein's moody, decidedly offbeat Something Wild has belatedly come into its own after more than forty six years. Based on Alex Karmel's 1958 novel Mary Ann, this is the story of a young woman who is brutally raped while returning to her Bronx home. Unable to tell her repressive parents about her plight, she dramatically rejects her former and now despoiled existence and runs away from home, ending up in New York's seedy Lower East Side. There she rents a room and gets a job at a crummy five-and-dime store. Depressed and desperate, Mary Ann prepares to jump off a bridge into the East River when a passing stranger, a garage mechanic named Mike, rescues her and takes her back to his basement apartment to recover. Then things really start to get weird....
Starring as Mary Ann was movie star Carroll Baker, who had started her career as a magician's assistant, and began appearing in TV commercials while studying at New York's legendary Actors Studio. After some small parts on TV and in minor movie roles, Carroll finally broke into Hollywood prominence in major studio blockbusters such as Giant (1956) and The Big Country (1958). Her biggest splash, however, may well have been her scandalous title role as a sultry teenage virgin in Tennessee Williams' sexually-charged Baby Doll in 1956 for which she received a Best Actress Oscar® nomination.
Mike, Mary Ann's knight-in-dingy-overalls in Something Wild, was played by the gifted Ralph Meeker, who had begun his career onstage in bit parts in the early 1940s and then toured Europe as an actor in a USO troupe during much of WW II. After the War he returned to the U.S. and began working both onstage and behind the scenes, getting his big break with a role in Broadway's "Mister Roberts"; he eventually became the understudy for Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire". At the beginning of the 1950s MGM offered him a contract, and he made several films for the studio before returning to New York to star in the original Broadway production of "Picnic" (allegedly, he turned down the part in the 1955 movie version because he didn't want to sign a long-term contract with Columbia Studios). More movies followed, including the cult film noir Kiss Me Deadly from 1955, directed by Robert Aldrich, and such memorable efforts as Sam Fuller's Run of the Arrow (1957) and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957). Meeker was also a frequent guest star in 1950s television shows, with a string of roles on prestigious anthology dramas such as Studio One and episodes of popular series including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Wagon Train, and Wanted: Dead or Alive.
Something Wild was directed by Czechoslovakia-born Jack Garfein, an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor who made it to the U.S. while still a teenager. The talented and determined Garfein started working in New York theater, and made his Broadway directorial debut in 1953. A year later he joined the prestigious and groundbreaking Actors Studio, studying alongside classmates Ben Gazzara, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, Harry Belafonte, and Rod Steiger. A highly intellectual actor and director, Garfein admired and respected the Method, and compared himself to a painter the way he assembled image, sound, editing, music and performance for his films. Unfortunately, he only made two of them, 1957's The Strange One starring Gazzara, and 1961's Something Wild. Not only did Garfein direct the latter, he was the husband of its star Carroll Baker. They had married in 1955, first becoming acquainted when Baker enrolled in acting classes at the Actors Studio. It was ultimately Something Wild's commercial failure which put Garfein and Baker in serious debt to distributor United Artists, and Baker later reduced some of their debt by appearing in other movies for UA.
The much-praised cinematography for Something Wild was by the brilliant and innovative German-born Eugen Schufftan, who had done pioneering work since the days of silent film, with contributions to such classics as Metropolis (1927) and Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927). After his European successes, he moved to the U.S. in 1940 and worked steadily in films as a cinematographer, and later returned to make more films on the continent, including the eerie 1960 horror classic Les Yeux sans visage, directed by Georges Franju. Though Something Wild was not released until 1961, it was filmed some time before that, possibly as early as 1959. It was Schufftan's evocative cinematography of New York, from its lonely, cavernous streets, to the impersonal and formidable skyscrapers, to the seedy neighborhoods, which gave Something Wild its distinctive look, one which has been compared to the best of Italian neorealism. To a mainstream American public hardly used to such stark and unromanticized imagery, the brutal visual examination of Something Wild was a mostly-unwelcome shock. Schufftan, who won an Oscar® for 1961's The Hustler, also contributed a vivid and frightening dream sequence complete with faceless schoolgirls and dripping eyeballs.
Another top-notch aspect of Something Wild is the musical score. Progressive modern American composer and John Cage-protg Morton Feldman was approached to write the score for it, but couldn't come up with exactly what Garfein envisioned for his film. The director then turned to renowned composer Aaron Copland, who had worked in Hollywood several times before, receiving Academy Award® nominations for his scores for Of Mice and Men in 1939 and Our Town in 1940, and finally winning for his music for The Heiress in 1949. Something Wild would be his first movie score in twelve years, and he reused some of the themes in his later concert work, the New York-inspired "Music for a Great City". Because of the diffident critical and audience reception to Something Wild at the time of its initial release, Copland's jazzy, hard-edged score was never put out on LP, but in 2003 a soundtrack CD was finally produced more than forty years later! Copland's score was rediscovered and it at long last received the critical acclaim that it so richly deserved. (The story behind the CD is interesting as well; only a few LP copies of the score had been pressed in 1961, with Garfein keeping a copy or two and a few others going to Copland. One ended up at the University of Texas, where a Copland researcher found it, contacted Garfein, and a mint copy of the LP was located in someone's attic, and that was the source material for the much-delayed release.)
The supporting cast in Something Wild reflected the vast pool of acting incredible talent working in New York in the late 1950s, many of them Actors Studio graduates and regular faces on the Broadway theater scene. Mildred Dunnock, an Oscar®-nominee for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 1951's Death of a Salesman, and again for 1956's Baby Doll, in which she appeared with Something Wild star Carroll Baker, played Baker's mother. In 1955 Dunnock also originated the role on Broadway of Big Mama in Tennessee Williams' play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof". Jean Stapleton, another theatre actress who would become America's favorite dingbat as Edith Bunker in TV's All in the Family, played one of Mary Ann's Lower East Side acquaintances. Vehement anti-Nazi actor Martin Kosleck, who often played evil S.S. officers in the movies, was the sleazy landlord. Actors Studio graduate Clifton James played a detective. Other familiar faces include Doris Roberts (who struck gold on TV's Everybody Loves Raymond), William Hickey (Prizzi's Honor, 1985), Diane Ladd, Logan Ramsey, and, of course, the nameless residents of New York City.
Most critics at the time were somewhat baffled by Something Wild. While giving the movie credit for its "poetic realism" (Saturday Review) and "esthetic sincerity" (The N.Y. Herald Tribune), and generally appreciating its searing look at the sometimes bleak and occasionally savage fabric of New York City, they were still unsatisfied with the film's moody core. Some critics were mystified by Mary Ann's motivations from the very beginning, and unable to fathom her extreme reaction to the rape. Once she meets up with her mechanic rescuer Mike, the reactions became more polarized. What happens inside Mike's apartment is...strange and mesmerizing--or, as Variety thought, lugubrious and dreary. Even the critics who were impressed with Something Wild felt the psychological complexities in Garfein and Karmel's script provided too little concrete motivation for Mary Ann and Mike. "Terrible, tedious torture" the N.Y. Times called it, while admitting it was a "shattering experience". Films in Review found it "a sophomoric mess of melodrama and psychological ignorance". Jonas Mekas in Film Quarterly championed it, writing that the movie was the "most interesting American film of the quarter; it may become the most underestimated film of the year." Time Magazine took issue with the script and thought it felt as though it had been written, in turns, by Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett and Fannie Hurst. It's true that there is a bit of the fervid sexuality of Williams, the absurdity of Beckett, and the tenement romance of Hurst in Something Wild, and it's not hard to understand why American moviegoers didn't know how to respond to it.
The relationship between the would-be suicide Mary Ann and the garage mechanic Mike is something wild, indeed. Something weird, too. What to make of a relationship which takes place in a dreary basement apartment, between a traumatized rape victim and a sometimes violent, sometimes solicitous man? What to make of a connection that starts when Mike locks Mary Ann in the apartment, then continues through to a drunken attempted embrace and a shocking high heel to the eye socket, certainly the most memorable and horrifying moment in Something Wild. Most of all, what is one to make of the resolution when Mike leaves the door unlocked and Mary Ann escapes, only to return and marry him?
Strangely enough, television has kept Something Wild alive through the years. It ran several times on network primetime movie showcases, and then for many years was a staple of local afternoon movie franchises around the country. Countless viewers discovered the movie through these airings, and even a cursory ramble through the internet brings up a myriad of references and remembrances to Something Wild, often from people who vaguely recall it from their childhood and haven't been able to forget it.
Though Something Wild has not yet been released on DVD, it's finally beginning to come out of the shadows. Most prominently, the IFC Center brought the movie to New York for a short run at the end of 2006, prompting local critics to weigh in once again on this neglected movie. While not everyone agreed it was a lost classic, contemporary critics seemed more open to Something Wild's psychological vagaries, and appreciated it as an ambitious independent film and personal labor of love for its director. Ultimately, Garfein's movie is an urban fairy tale for the flawed, and an impressive showcase for his wife Baker and co-star Ralph Meeker.
Producer: George Justin
Director: Jack Garfein
Screenplay: Jack Garfein; Alex Karmel (screenplay and novel "Mary Ann")
Cinematography: Eugen Schufftan
Art Direction: Albert Brenner, Richard Day
Music: Aaron Copland
Film Editing: Carl Lerner
Cast: Carroll Baker (Mary Ann Robinson), Ralph Meeker (Mike), Mildred Dunnock (Mrs. Gates), Jean Stapleton (Shirley Johnson), Martin Kosleck (landlord), Charles Watts (Warren Gates), Clifton James (Detective Bogart), George L. Smith (store manager).
by Lisa Mateas