Monday, September 27, 2010


Jack Garfein's 1961 Something Wild patiently awaits rediscovery. Adapted by the director and Alex Karmel from the latter's 1958 novel Mary Ann--and not to be confused in any way, shape, or form with Jonathan Demme's 1986 black comedy of the same name--the picture is an oddly impressionistic soap opera that vaguely prefigures John Fowles' The Collector (faithfully filmed by William Wyler in 1965), and even (in a non-supernatural sense) Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962). The film has never been released on home video, but--as with so many other obscure-but-fine productions--occasionally materializes, like a lonesome ghost, on Turner Classic Movies.

Garfein's then-wife Carroll Baker stars as Mary Ann Robinson, a Bronx teenager who is dragged into the bushes and raped on her way home from school. She doesn't report the crime, but returns late to the house she shares with her domineering mother (Mildred Dunnock) and stepfather (Charles Watts--not, I hasten to add, the Stones drummer), creeping upstairs to her bedroom and trying to make as little noise as possible. Mary Ann bathes her wounds and destroys the clothing she wore during the assault, but becomes increasingly withdrawn as the film progresses, declining to kiss her mother goodbye when she leaves the next morning and not wanting to be touched. She faints on the subway and is escorted home by a policeman, which scandalizes her mother. Mary Ann drops out of school, takes a tiny apartment in a tenement managed by psychotronic cinema favorite Martin Kosleck (House of Horrors [1946], The Flesh Eaters [1964]), and operates a cash register in Woolworth's while her mother searches for her. The five-and-ten's no picnic, however: after being surrounded and jeered at by her harpy co-workers (including a surprisingly slim Doris Roberts), Mary Ann attempts to commit suicide by jumping from Manhattan Bridge. She is thwarted by Mike (Ralph Meeker), a rough-around-the-edges garage mechanic who, concerned that she might try to kill herself again--indeed, he prevents the dazed woman from walking into traffic--convinces her to rest at his Lower East Side basement apartment while he returns to work.

He also locks her in the apartment and, when he staggers drunkenly back to the flat, attempts to paw Mary Ann, who shrieks and kicks him in the eye with her high heel. Mike eventually loses the eye, but the brute was so plastered during the assault that he assumes he received the injury in a barroom brawl. His increasingly desperate captive finally sets him straight after being imprisoned--although, significantly, not touched again--for several months. ("So we're even," he observes somberly.) Mike departs in shame, deliberately leaving the door open so that Mary Ann can escape, even though he's told her that she's his "last chance" and that he wants to marry her. Finally freed, our heroine wanders through Central Park, breathing fresh air, sleeping on the grass, and seeing the world in an Altogether More Positive Light. She returns to Mike and, in a climax situated somewhere between co-dependency and Stockholm Syndrome, agrees to marry him. In an epilogue, she reconciles with her mother, informing her that the couple are going to have a baby. Well, another baby, if you count Mike.

We never learn the reasons why Mary Ann constitutes her future husband's "last chance," but it's easy to see that the man has made a complete hash of his life. Meeker's performance is excellent, revealing the vulnerability behind his trademark tough-guy persona; the mechanic is what his more famous Mike character--the private eye Hammer (in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly [1955])--might have become if he hadn't gone into the gumshoe trade. (His constant suggestion to her, "Why don't you stay here?", is alternately oppressive and poignant.) Baker communicates genuine alienation; as rendered by Eugen Schufftan's lens, she's a frozen beauty, light years away from her nymphette title turn as Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956). Jean Stapleton contributes a small-but-memorable role as Mary Ann's obnoxious neighbor Shirley Johnson, and Clifton James is amusing as the police detective (named Bogart, no less) who endures Mrs. Robinson's badgering on behalf of her missing daughter.

The real star of the film, of course, is New York City itself, majestically rendered in black-and-white by Schufftan (who won an Oscar for Robert Rossen's same-year The Hustler and also shot George Franju's hypnotic Les Yeux Sans Visage ["Eyes Without a Face," 1959]) and jazzily, jauntily scored by none other than Aaron Copland. Copland's composition (which the maestro partially recycled for 1964's Music for a Great City) combines with Schufftan's sharply-edited shots of traffic, pedestrians, pigeons, and architecture--pure visual geometry comparable to Karl Freund and Gunther Ritten's Metropolis (1925) cityscapes (to which Schufftan also contributed special visual effects)--for another memorable Saul Bass title sequence. Garfein doesn't shy from displaying the darker aspects of the city, from Mary Ann's graphic-for-its-time rape to vagrants slumped in doorways. The Bronx is captured at a time of increasingly diverse population density, and the borough's concomitant decline. ("Honestly, I don't know what's going to happen to this neighborhood!" Mrs. Robinson complains to her daughter.) The picture's many silent passages possess an otherworldly ambiance, as if the viewer is suspended with its anomic protagonist somewhere between dream and nightmare. It's a shame that Garfein, who earlier directed an adaptation of Calder Willingham's End As a Man (the edgily homoerotic The Strange One [1957]) and himself survived imprisonment at Auschwitz, never released another feature, returning instead to the theatre and teaching. Northwestern University Press published the octogenarian's Life and Acting: Techniques for the Actor in June 2010.

Something Wild was briefly and heroically revived at New York's IFC Center in early 2007, but once again the picture seems to have quietly slipped back into celluloid limbo. It's scarcely a total success--the long captivity stretch is sometimes sluggish--but the film is well worth a look. Garfein's second and final feature may not be precisely "wild," but it's certainly unusual, and TCM offers a striking fullscreen print of this 112-minute psychodrama. Watch for it Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 11:30 p.m. EST.