#850 Something Wild
1961 // USA // Jack Garfein
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Something Wild is the kind of film that one hardly heard of before, let alone watch it. But once you discover it, you would feel terribly sorry for its lack of recognition. Released in 1961 as one of the very first American independent film (John Cassavetes’ Shadow was screened first in 1958), it was received poorly by critics and audience at the time. They were not ready for the film’s directness and uniqueness. Director Jack Garfein never makes another film, instead focusing his career on teaching and directing in the Actors’ Studio and theater. Jack Garfein’s directorial debut The Strange One (1957) , is as obscurely seen as Something Wild, his second feature four years later. Both I was not unaware of beforehand, not until Criterion Collection released the later film in physical format. And I’m glad for the final encounter.
However, I have to admit that I appreciate the film more than I love it. Something Wild touches on a taboo subject, sexual assault to woman, that has since be depicted more widely and radically on the silver screen. In the recent years, for instance, Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016) strike my emotional cord on the same subject more intensely in comparison. In Something Wild, the manifestation is restrained and constricted. The cross pendant falling to the ground, skirt being pulled over, the almost silent moaning and groaning, the rape scene of the young college girl Mary Ann (Carroll Baker) happened shortly after the opening credits.
The opening titles, designed by the indomitable Saul Bass, feature bird’s-eye view and close-up shots of the urban landscape of the New York City, together with the pulsing score by Aaron Copland, the film opens like a symphony of a metropolis, introducing a city like its own main character. The real location shooting in the streets, partly French-New-Wave style, partly kitchen-sink realism, intensify the authenticity of the story, which is distilled to zero dialogues in the first 15 minutes. The silent treatment of the aftermath of the raping externalizes the internal struggle and suffering of Mary Ann. She leaves the scene in quiver, sneaks into her house with worry of letting her mother (Mildred Dunnock) and step-father (Charles Watts) find out what happened, loses all her strength and dozes besides the heater, gently washes her traumatized body in bath like cleansing her soul, cutting her dress she just worn into pieces and flushes them in the toilet. And finally, feeling claustrophobic, passes out the next day in the jammed train on her way to school.
The reserved psychological depiction of Mary Ann shows how a woman is traumatized by a single indelible event. Her absent-mindedness, her avoidance of physical contacts, her sudden urge of exasperation, in addition to Carroll Baker’s utterly spellbinding performance, are deeply affecting. That’s why her suicide attempt by jumping over the Manhattan Bridge almost seems a “logical” step. But film takes an unexpected turn into a chamber play thriller half way through when a stranger, the shabby, rugged looking Mike (Ralph Meeker), stops her from suicide. He persuades the exhausted Mary Ann to rest in his basement apartment while he goes back to work. He cordially makes dinner for her, awkwardly peeks at her in shyness, but turns back drunken and imprisons her.
The second half of the film utilities mainly one setting, cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan’s composition and usage of lights and shadow creates an entrapment effect on the two afflicted souls. Mike’s contradictory creepiness and gentleness, all credited to Ralph Meeker’s superb performance and the eye-patch, keep the story away from the cliched illustration of Stockholm syndrome. “You are my last chance!” As Mike yelled wholeheartedly when Mary Ann pleading him to let her go. They are two traumatized individuals in distorted affinity. There is a dream sequence, reminiscent of Dail’s surrealistic one in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), adds another layer of eeriness. In addition to the unforeseeable turn into psychoanalytic thriller, like Psycho (1960), making the second half Hitchcockian to me.
I can foretell my appreciation to the film will be deepen, and the feeling of disjointedness between the first and second half will be diminished upon repeated viewing. Jack Garfein is a survivor of the Holocaust, it’s no accident that the film deals with a life-changing trauma. “What has happened?” Mary Ann’s mother eventually asked her at the end of the film after Mary Ann’s months of disappearance. It is the ultimate question with no simple answer. Same as the fate of the film itself. What has happened? It was forgotten but is now remembered.