Something Wild (1961)


Poster image to 1961's Something Wild

After being raped, young woman Mary Ann Robinson attempts to commit suicide, but is rescued by passerby Mike. He takes her back to his house to rest, but does not allow her to leave. Now a prisoner, Mary Ann must struggle with Mike’s obvious instability, and a subtle cat-and-mouse variation between captor and captive begins to unfold.

Beautiful, powerful, emotional, and divisive all at the same time, SOMETHING WILD is a fantastic film that can not be fully digested during its running time. One must sit on it and ruminate for a bit, and then likely go back for a second viewing. It is complex in its simplicity, and demands to be unpacked a layer at a time. It’s a grindhouse heart in an arthouse body, successfully bridging those worlds where others have failed. Everybody should see it at least once.

Although synopsized above, SOMETHING WILD deserves a more patient exploration, so let us return to the start. While walking home alone through the park, college student Mary Ann Robinson (Carroll Baker) is blindsided by an unknown assailant, hauled into the bushes, and raped. She doesn’t report the incident, opting instead to destroy any evidence of the assault, keep it to herself, and distance herself from her family. She distances herself so far, in fact, that her mother and step-father don’t know where she disappears to when she drops out of school, takes a department store job, and rents out a room in some flea bag hovel.

The only aspect of her past life that she can’t escape is the only aspect that she’s actively trying to—her assault. The melange of dark feelings (Guilt? Fear? Paranoia?) bear down on her, and coupled with the oppressive temperature of the city’s heatwave, prove too much to bear. Addled and unable to think clearly, Mary Ann is poised to throw herself from a bridge, when she’s rescued by a passing pedestrian.

"Don't jump again!" - Something Wild

Mechanic Mike (Ralph Meeker) does not treat Mary Ann with the kid gloves that one might expect. He does not coax her down with gentle words and tender reassurance. He throws her to the ground and brusquely demands “Don’t try to jump again!”, while pointing his finger at her like a weapon. Eventually he softens a bit, and invites her to rest at his nearby apartment while he works. She accepts, and when she wakes up, Mike’s shift at the garage has ended, and he has returned home. The only problem is, he has locked the door and will not allow her the same luxury.

SOMETHING WILD is a strange movie, and also quite a difficult one—one that can not be explored without giving away the finale. It’s extremely difficult to reconcile the ending of the film with what had come before it. After keeping Mary Ann captive for some time, Mike finally proposes to her and when she denies him, he allows her to leave. After spending the night alone in the park—seemingly quite close to where she was raped—she awakens refreshed and reenergized, then rushes back to Mike’s apartment. She accepts his proposal, they embrace and kiss, and they begin their lives together. In short order, Mary Ann’s mother learns of her daughter’s whereabouts and comes to rescue her, only to find that she doesn’t want rescuing—Mary Ann is healthy and happy, married to Mike and carrying his (?) child.

It is, of course, this finale that makes SOMETHING WILD so divisive. What is one supposed to make of it? Mike has held Mary Ann prisoner, and has drunkenly attempted to rape her himself, so why on Earth would she fall in love with him? There is a lot to consider.

Mary Ann the prisoner from 1961's Something Wild

Mike is obviously a broken and emotionally unstable man. He’s terribly lonely and socially awkward, and drinks too much too often. It’s possible that in some strange way, he’s holding her captive to “save her” from herself—some sort of suicide watch, a la BLACK SNAKE MOAN. When he comes home drunk and tries to force himself on her, she strikes back, kicking him in the face and ruining his eye. When he awakens the next morning, he remembers nothing of the night before and assumes that he had gotten into a drunken brawl. It’s not until after his proposal that Mary Ann tells him what he had done, and he is obviously guilt stricken. Perhaps it is this remorse that Mary Ann reflects on during her night of freedom in the city, and comes to realize that his feelings are genuine (though misguided) and that hers reflect the same. Together, they can save each other, from the world and from themselves.

It’s also possible that this is an early example of Stockholm Syndrome put on display more than a decade before the term was even coined, but there’s too much evidence onscreen that points against that. Unfortunately, it merely feels as if a fragile woman develops feelings for the man that assaults her, supporting the baseless machismo fantasy that every uptight female just needs a little rough trade and domination to straighten her out. This is a particularly sleazy sentiment that would be easier to stomach in some cheapjack exploitation film, as tastelessness is one of the primary ingredients (and one that I would rarely condemn). But SOMETHING WILD is no mere exploitation film—it’s closer, in fact, to an art film—and so it somehow feels even sleazier here. It makes the whole thing come off as distasteful and unpalatable; but if the purpose of art is to elicit a response, then this movie has certainly done its job.

Setting aside the finale, which is bound to ruffle a few feathers, SOMETHING WILD is a haunting and hypnotic film. It opens with a beautifully made credits montage by the great Saul Bass which fully conveys the hustle and bustle of the city, and the first third of the film offers up an authentic glimpse of New York in the early 1960s, backdropped by fading buildings and colorful characters. Once Mary Ann enters Mike’s apartment, though, what once encompassed an entire metropolis is now relegated to a single claustrophobic set—much like the experimental stage plays that were happening off-Broadway elsewhere in the city. There’s also a vague, yet still heavy-handed, dream sequence in which Mary Ann is mocked in an art museum by a group of young women without facial features. It brings a touch of surrealism to the otherwise gritty realism that permeates the film. The entire thing is tense and emotional despite its rather languid pace, and the great black-and-white cinematography from Academy Award winner Eugen Schüfftan practically oozes sadness and desperation. Say what you like about it, but SOMETHING WILD is an unforgettable film.

Besides the very talented leads that have already been mentioned above, the cast is rounded out with the likes of Mildred Dunnock and Charles Watts as Mary Ann’s parental units; Martin Kosleck as her slimy and unsettling landlord; and Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker from ALL IN THE FAMILY, etc.) and Doris Roberts (Marie Barone from EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND) as her neighbor and coworker, respectively.

Book cover to Something Wild

SOMETHING WILD was based on the 1958 novel Mary Ann by author Alex Karmel, who wrote two other novels—Last Words and My Revolution—as well as two non-fiction books, but this was the only one to be adapted to the screen. Karmel died on October 24, 2015 of complications related to cancer. His first wife, Marjorie Karmel, was the cofounder of Lamaze International, responsible for bringing natural childbirth to public consciousness, and died in 1964. His second wife, to whom he was married for the last 40 years of his life, was former stage actress Marianne Marcellin. The fact that his most famous work was called Mary Ann, and his wife’s name was Marianne (a name also shared with his daughter from his first wife) is lost on nobody. One can only guess who his favorite castaway on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was.

The man responsible for bringing this story to the screen was Jack Garfein, an Auschwitz survivor who came to America as a teenager and went on to become a stage actor and director before joining the Actors Studio. His only other film credits are 1957’s THE STRANGE ONE, the film debut of actor Ben Gazzara; and the 1993 documentary A JOURNEY BACK (which oddly does not appear on his IMDb page), in which he returns to the concentration camp that almost claimed his life. At the time of this film’s production, Garefin was married to leading lady Carroll Baker.

SOMETHING WILD was originally intended to be scored by experimental composer Morton Feldman, but the opening piece that he put together did not match Garfein’s vision, and the director hired Aaron Copland instead. Feldman’s track, “Something Wild in the City: Mary Ann’s Theme” was eventually released on his album Something Wild: Music for Film, and although it is an atonally beautiful lullaby, Garfein’s supposed reaction—“My wife is being raped and you write celesta music!?”—is an understandable one. Feldman was still paid in full for the job, however he comes across as rather bitter about the whole experience.

Copland’s score is at times brash and jazzy, a suitable audio portrayal of the New York setting. He had initially convinced the music department of United Artists (who distributed the independently-produced film) to release his soundtrack, but it was decided against when SOMETHING WILD proved unsuccessful. A small handful of test copies were produced, though, and a sealed copy of the album was rediscovered in 1999, allowing for its eventual release by Varèse Sarabande in 2003.


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