By Tony Williams.
Something Wild (1961) has nothing to do with the similarly titled well-known 1986 Jonathan Demme film. In fact before the list of Criterion new releases arrived, I frankly confess that I had never even heard of it. How can anyone now claim to have an encyclopedia knowledge of cinema that may have been possible in the limited-release era of the mid-twentieth century, but unlikely today even with secondary sources that the internet now provides? However, this particular film is a real discovery and Criterion again deserve full credit not just for their usual excellent restoration quality but making available again an estimable work of the past that has become unjustly neglected over the years.
Although dealing with the traumatic aftermath of a rape victim’s emotional odyssey and possible internal survival, Something Wild has nothing to do with those often gratuitous rape and revenge films such as Hannie Calder (1971), I Spit on Your Grave (1978/2010), and Sudden Impact (1983) that the Wikipedia entry suggests by its misleading initial sentence. A rape occurs, but with no revenge. Instead, the film is an independent production influenced by the New York Actor’s Studio and directed by one of its major talents who only made two films that far transcend any attempt at mundane generic categorization. Shot mostly on location in New York thus suggesting associations with Naked City (1948) and the location-based (1958-63) television series of the same name, Something Wild is much more significant. It was shot by a director of photography (known for his work on Franju’s 1959 Eyes Without A Face) employed for his ultimately successful potential for bring poetic elements to location shots, derived from a novel by co-scenarist Alex Karmel, with music score by Aaron Copland and features Actor’s Studio alumni such as Carrol Baker, Ralph Meeker, Jean Stapleton (sister of Maureen who both appear in 1962 Naked City episodes), Clifton James (later unfortunately stereotyped as Sheriff J.W. Pepper in two Roger Moore Bond films) and Mildred Dunnock. The film also anticipates later serious critical work on trauma by scholars such as Cathy Caruth in her prolific writings on this subject as well as Kali Tal, whose 1995 Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma was based on an equally excellent doctoral dissertation studying the narratives on rape, incest, and Vietnam War survivors. These premature associations especially concerning Tal’s work take on added resonance when I learned from both the August 2016 interview with director Jack Garfein (married to Carroll Baker at the time of filming) and the 20-minute Behind the Method interview with film historian Foster Hirsch shot during September 2016, that Garfein himself was a Holocaust survivor who intuitively identified with the traumatic devastation of the film’s heroine. While the 15-minute September 2016 audio interview with Carroll Baker has the actress suggesting her character’s later behavior being due to “The Stockholm Syndrome”, it seems more plausible to see intuitive links with the director’s own personal history and the later work of Kali Tal.
While Criterion has certainly performed a grateful service in restoring many of the great classical and commercial films of the past, they are definitely treading new ground in excavating this little known film and making it available to the wider audience it definitely deserves. Although premiered at a prestigious New York movie theater on its release, it failed to attract a wider audience due to its then controversial subject matter. The European audiences who did see the film appreciated it much more. Since then it has fallen into limbo with the wider viewing audience apart from those academics and viewers following the history of the Actor’s Studio and its associations with cinema of which the Kazan connection is the most widely known. Still teaching intermittently at the Actor’s Studio today, a 17-year-old Garfein received encouragement by Erwin Picador as an potential director but later become the only person to graduate from Lee Strasberg’s first director class in that Studio gravitating towards the younger generation of actors represented by Pat Hingle, James Dean, and Ben Gazzara (who he would later direct in the theatrical and film version of one of Calder Willingham’s early works). Then, as now, the Actor’s Studio has a pristine representation, so four years after filming The Strange One (1957), Garfein began his second and last film that not only owed much to his widely recognized talents as a theatrical director but also to the collaborative involvement of many key personnel both behind and in front of the camera. Other extras on this DVD include extracts from Garfein teaching a young actor’s class in 2014 as well as a valuable essay by Sheila 0’Malley.
Garfein became attracted to Alex Karmel’s original source novel Mary Ann (1958) due to its treatment of the heroine as not just exclusively a sexual victim but also as a human being tormented by her traumatic experience in a Hamlet-type manner that defied the usual form of contemporary stereotyping. Due to Garfein’s Holocaust experiences and the emphasis of the source material, Carroll Baker’s heroine, a role she performs with very little dialogue operating by Actor’s Studio influenced gesture and movement in the first non-dialogue ten-minutes of scenes, becomes instantly identified as a traumatic victim acting in a manner sadly documented by so many studies today. As Saul Bass’ credit sequence reveals, she functions in a city landscape that can be both benevolent and threatening during many sequences that intuitively depict the turbulent emotions this tragic urban heroine undergoes. Played by Ralph Meeker in a performance that his Hollywood work offered him little opportunity to reveal, Mary Ann’s savior-jailor figure Mike displays a complex set of emotions ranging from sympathetic, manipulative, monstrous, and vulnerable that only the freedom granted by Actor’s Studio practices could allow at the time. Aaron Copeland’s musical score supplements rather than intrudes into the emotional and balletic movements of location and characters. At one time, the composer even suggested to the director that one scene did not need music at all thus revealing the positive nature of an artistic collaboration in which everyone works in a supporting team manner unlike the competitive destructive ethos of a typical Broadway production or Hollywood studio film.
Something Wild is another example of that lost potential of American cinema suggested by the RKO experiments of Orson Welles, Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948) and the later 1960 production The Savage Eye, written, produced, and directed by former blacklist victim Ben Maddow and acclaimed by Edward Hopper for its realistic insights into American society. Like the formative Stanislavsky Moscow Art Theatre influence and the Actors’ Studio use of method acting with Garfein’s correction, we see that there was not “the Method” but many methods only engaged in seeking the pursuit of truth in acting. This film also engages in its diverse explorations of truth in terms of seeking a particular interpretation of reality rather than engaging in artifice. Thus, it is easy to initially identity the presence of documentary location filming, film noir techniques, a quasi-theatrical studio type of direction before the introduction of close-ups used sparingly to reveal moments of emotional vulnerability but far more challenging to see how they exactly operate in this director’s goal to pursue a different form of “cinematic truth” in all its contrasting variations. Thus Hirsch notes Baker’s acting achievements in depicting the traumatic effects of rape on the human body as she performs so much sensory work before the camera without using much exploratory dialogue. Meeker’s bodily performance skills also complement the different physical ones of his co-star suggesting a vulnerability, very different from hers, but of equal internal painful in many ways.
The final resolution may disappoint audiences with unavoidable associations to the contemporary Hollywood happy ending with its own form of family reunion awkwardly disrupting what has occurred before. However, as a Holocaust survivor identifying emotionally with his heroine, Garfein points out in the interview that life itself is mysterious, that any kind of real artistic creation is a “subconscious process”, and that his film ended in a very different manner than the source novel’s conclusion. He states that his “film just went that way”. Whatever justifiable logical and emotional reservations may occur in each viewer’s mind, we must remember that Garfein himself survived a devastating traumatic experience and he went on to live on and create. Similarly, each victim may perish or survive according to what particular circumstances exist according to the nature of the traumatic experience. However, it also should be noted that Garfein concludes his film with a final shot of the city that may be taken as affirmative, ambiguous, or negative both in terms of the aftermath affecting all the main characters and each viewer’s form of life experience. It is a fitting note on which to conclude the film that begins with the challenging nature of Saul Bass’s credits over various aspects of the cityscape that will play a significant role in the following events.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Contributing Editor to Film international, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and co-editor with Esther Yau, of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).