Friday, March 14, 2014

Neglected Gem #51: Something Wild (1961)

Ralph Meeker and Carroll Baker in Something Wild (1961)

No one in Hollywood in the late fifties and early sixties attempted anything remotely like Jack Garfein’s movie Something Wild (1961). (The movie has no connection to Jonathan Demme’s great romantic comedy of the same name, made twenty-five years later.) I first saw it on Saturday Night at the Movies when I was in high school in the late sixties, and though I didn’t know what the hell to make of it, for years afterwards my mind retained images from the dream sequence, where the protagonist, Mary Ann (played by Carroll Baker), in a gang of schoolgirls, stares at a painting with a moving eye in a museum and then endures the mocking laughter of her classmates as the features of their faces vanish. Garfein and his co-screenwriter Alex Karmel, adapting Karmel’s novel Mary Ann, had clearly absorbed the lessons of the Surrealist painters – De Chirico especially seems to haunt Mary Ann’s nightmare – as well as the Expressionist playwrights of the 1920s, and applied them to the conventions of film noir in a more florid and inventive way than anyone had previously. Visually the film noirs of the forties and fifties had always leaned toward that style; of all genres, noir was the one that gave directors and cinematographers the greatest license to import the ideas of the German Expressionist pictures of the silent and early talkie eras, and naturally that was the genre toward which filmmakers who ran away from Hitler and landed in Hollywood tended to gravitate. But Something Wild takes a more experimental approach to the narrative elements of noir, particularly the portrayal of the city as a weird and dangerous place.

The film begins with a nighttime cityscape – a typical noir opening – but what happens next is markedly unorthodox. On her way home, the teenage Mary Ann is seized by a strange man who rapes her and abandons her in the dark. She steals home, bent over in pain as she slips into her parents’ apartment, careful not to wake anyone. (The clandestine quality of the scene, reflecting her shame and desperation, looks forward to the scene in the 1981 Absence of Malice where the character played by Melinda Dillon tiptoes across her neighbors’ lawns in the early morning, making off with their morning papers so they won’t read her name in the front-page story that exposes the sexual history she’s kept hidden from her own family.) Still fully dressed, Mary Ann wraps herself in a blanket on the floor next to the radiator in her bedroom, reluctant to disturb the virginal purity of her bed. Eventually she rouses herself, removes her clothes and cuts them carefully into tatters and flushes them down the toilet.

Carroll Baker
Her experience makes Mary Ann claustrophobic: the touch of strangers in a subway crush is agonizing to her. And she can’t stomach the whining insensitivity of her mother (Mildred Dunnock, in a superb performance), who natters on about the deterioration of the street they live on and her anxiety about the “dirty” neighbors and the possibility that anything could happen beyond the safety of their home. (In their shaping of this character, Garfein and Karmel appear to have been inspired by the mother in Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionist drama Machinal.) But instead of retreating from that menacing world that has already marked her, Mary Ann leaves home and burrows farther into it. Without telling her mother, she rents an apartment in a cruddy neighborhood (Martin Kosleck is her greasy landlord) next door to a prostitute (Jean Stapleton, seven years away from playing Edith Bunker on All in the Family) and gets a job at Woolworth’s. But she can’t shake her depression, and one night she comes close to jumping off a bridge. (The river sparkles seductively below her.) She’s rescued by a car mechanic named Mike (Ralph Meeker) who takes her home. But he’s a drunk who keeps her prisoner in the hope that she’ll settle down with him. The trajectory of their relationship certainly doesn’t satisfy current cultural standards; that is, it’s politically incorrect and utterly surprising.

Meeker is a strange actor; he isn’t very good but he has a wayward quality that holds your attention. He was a staple on TV in the days of live drama and long afterwards, though noir buffs probably know him best as the P.I. Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s insane Cold War thriller Kiss Me Deadly (1955). In Something Wild he plays a character whose sociopathic tendencies seem to be, in the movie’s scheme, a result rather than a reflection of the alienation of the urban environment. In a conventional noir, a terrifying character like Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway’s 1947 Kiss of Death is an embodiment of what lies beneath the surface of the city; anyone who ventures too far into it invariably runs up against someone like him and pays the price of not staying at home at night with the door locked. By contrast, Meeker’s Mike is meant to indicate what can happen to a person who is only semi-formed when he comes under the creeping influence of the city. He provides us a glimpse of what could happen to Mary Ann, too, but instead these two wounded souls manage to find each other and bring each other into the light. Baker, who never got the respect she deserved in Hollywood because she looked like (and was marketed as) a starlet – which now seems amazing when you think of how funny and off the beaten path she was under Kazan’s direction as the Malden’s virgin bride in Baby Doll – gives a sensitively tuned performance that, at different moments, makes you think of Tuesday Weld, Sandy Dennis and Sissy Spacek’s Carrie.

The Czech-born Garfein, born in 1930, survived Auschwitz and made his way to New York after the war. There he joined the Actors Studio and met Baker, whom he married. They were both in the thick of the American Method movement of the period: Baker was chosen by Elia Kazan to star in Baby Doll, his movie version of a couple of Tennessee Williams one-acts, opposite Karl Malden and Eli Wallach, while Garfein made his movie debut directing Ben Gazzara and Pat Hingle in The Strange One, an adaptation of Calder Willingham’s hot-house drama End as a Man, about repression and coercion in a southern military academy. He never directed another movie after Something Wild, and when you look at it now you wonder how he ever got away with making it under the studio system in the first place. The other movie from its period that it might make you think of is John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959), which was independent and featured actors who had never appeared in a mainstream picture. Then again, Something Wild does have links to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which came out three years earlier and used expressionistic visuals to get inside the damaged psyche of the main character, the acrophobic ex-detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart). Perhaps United Artists, which released Garfein’s movie, thought they had another Vertigo on their hands, though of course Something Wild isn’t even a murder mystery to the extent that Hitchcock’s movie is. The near-murder in Garfein’s film is of Mary Ann’s soul. The movie is utterly remarkable, and though it went unnoticed at the time. a film lit by Eugene Sch├╝fftan (who had just shot Georges Franju’s horror classic Eyes Without a Face and The Hustler) and featuring a score by Aaron Copland has an unmistakable pedigree. The Blu-Ray release does it full justice.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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