What a powerful and disturbing and mysterious film. [SPOILERS ABOUND BELOW.]
Up until recently, it was virtually un-see-able. Not released on DVD, let alone VHS, and rarely screened. Kim Morgan, when she guest-programmed an episode of Turner Classic Movies for critics week, chose Something Wild as one of the two films she would present. So it is out there, if your radar is up for it.
Warner Archives has brought it out in a Limited Edition DVD (sold on Amazon), and I can’t put it more plainly: Seek out this extraordinary film. While comparisons can be made with other films, most obviously with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, those comparisons post-date the film’s release, showing Something Wild‘s pioneering spirit. While watching it, I got impressionistic flashes from literature or fairy tales. Bluebeard’s Castle. Hansel and Gretl. Sleeping Beauty. All of those terrifying stories of entrapment, and lost innocence. Of love being interchangeable from jealousy and a desire to control. Of helplessness. Something Wild is one of the most understanding, harrowing, and insightful portrayals of rape’s aftermath that I have ever seen in cinema.
Don’t let the title fool you. This is a dark and grim picture, downright upsetting. Filmed on location in New York, Something Wild was based on the novel Mary Ann, by Alex Karmel (he also co-wrote the screenplay with Garfein). Garfein was a Holocaust survivor who moved to the United States and became heavily involved with the Actors Studio. He started Actors Studio West. He directed productions at the Studio in New York. He is still alive. He married Carroll Baker, she who had made such a controversial splash in Baby Doll, the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ one-act 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. Directed by Elia Kazan, and starring Baker, Karl Malden, Mildred Dunnock, and Eli Wallach, it tells the story of a babyish Southern wife, who sleeps in a crib, sucking her thumb, and living for Coca Cola. She is married to a rich jealous guy (Malden). The posters/billboards of the film were so erotic and disturbing they caused a firestorm of controversy. The Catholic League denounced the film.
Ironically, Baby Doll, the actual film, is almost (almost) a kind-hearted screwball comedy, unlike the original source material. Now, true, Tennessee Williams called it a comedy himself, which does give you a clue of his intentions. But it features a rape scene made even more terrible, somehow, because “Baby Doll” is so obviously mentally impaired. A child-woman in a sex-doll body who clearly is overrun by all of the males in her life. Baby Doll made Carroll Baker famous and infamous at the same time. Her autobiography is called Baby Doll, which shows the impact that that film had on her career (good and bad). Her book had a profound influence on me, I wrote about that here.
Baker was hailed as the new sex goddess in the movies. But it didn’t really fit. It was a label. She was trying to shrug it off for years. She made some shit movies. She was a disappointment to the powers-that-be, her career hadn’t gone to the stratosphere as expected after the Baby Doll brouhaha. Nobody seemed to know what to do with her.
Something Wild was an independent film, financed by Garfein and Baker themselves. They had some heavy-hitters on board. Saul Bass did the opening credits sequence, a jarring and flashy urban collage, throwing us into the over-stimulated atmosphere of urban life, the elevated trains plunging into tunnels repeatedly, a clear sexualization of the landscape.
Aaron Copland did the moody score. Filmed all over New York, stunningly, Something Wild feels independent. Many of the shots feel “stolen”, Carroll Baker walking through Times Square, hailing a cab, or running across the street. It’s a gorgeous looking movie, and anticipates all of those great gritty independent films of the 1970s, shot on location in a New York so grimy and drab and dirty that you can smell the garbage through the screen.
Mary Ann (Carroll Baker) gets off the crowded subway in the opening of the film and heads home. It’s her normal route through the park. She is carrying books. Her step is light. As she cuts her way through the park, she hears something and looks around. She sees a paper cup on the ground, rolling, as though someone just dropped it. She maybe hears a twig snap. But she sees nothing else. She continues on her way and then, horrifyingly, like a monster rising up out of a lagoon, a figure reaches out to her from the bushes and pulls her in with him. She is thrown down onto the ground and raped, the man’s giant body smothering hers, his hand over her mouth. We never see his face.
He leaves her there. She gathers up her books, and the cross necklace he had ripped off, and then continues on her way. Traumatized. Her body is no longer her own. It has been taken from her.
Then follows an absolutely extraordinary wordless sequence that goes on for about 20 minutes. She goes home, and tiptoes up the stairs to her room. She goes into her bedroom, a girlish child-like room. She wraps herself up in a blanket and huddles on the floor by the radiator. Time passes. She has fallen asleep. She wakes up and then, haltingly, goes into the bathroom. She takes off her now-dirty dress and runs a bath. Her body is covered in bruises and cuts, one big gash on her arm. She steps into the bath and washes herself, at first gently, and then more vigorously, smashing the soap-suds into her face, as though she will never get clean. After that, she crouches on the floor in the bathroom and starts to cut up her clothes into tiny fragments. She flushes the fragments down the toilet. Each step of the way is lingered on, dwelled on, but in a way that doesn’t seem fetishistic. Her actions are presented in a very blunt straightforward way: Here is what she did next. And here is what she did after that.
Mary Ann tells no one about the rape. She has no sense that this is anything that even could be shared. The rape that happens in the first 10 minutes of the film is never again mentioned, not in language, and yet it is the catalyst for all that follows. The film is an examination of trauma, and where trauma can lead those who are isolated within it. You are screaming inside for her to TELL someone, to get some HELP. But she can’t.
The next morning, she gathers up her books and heads out to go to school. The subway is jam-packed with rush hour commuters, men jostling her on every side. It is filmed almost like a horror movie, with the train plunging into the darkness of the tunnels, and the casual intimacy of urban life, where you have to tolerate being pushed against other people, is now seen as incredibly ominous, something Mary Ann can no longer tolerate. Panicked, she emerges from the train, and faints on the platform.
Her mother (the awesome Mildred Dunnock) caters to her daughter but is also a hovering presence of anxiety, certainly not someone Mary Ann can confide in. What is Mary Ann studying in school? We don’t know. She doesn’t have boyfriends, and she appears to not have any friends either. She is completely alone.
What happens in the second half of the film is extraordinary and terrifying. Mary Ann, after a couple of days (or weeks?) of almost somnambulist rambling through New York, goes and rents an apartment in a dank and crowded tenement on what seems to be the Lower East Side. She tells no one she is doing this. She just stops going to school one day. Her mother reports her disappearance to the cops. Mary Ann lives in a crowded dark closet-space, with a leaking skylight, and the whooping sounds of the floozy (prostitute, probably) who lives in the next room, entertaining her guests, played by Jean Stapleton!
Mary Ann gets a job in the nearby five-and-dime, and because she is aloof or shy is made a target of jokes and gossip by the other girls working there (headed up by the wonderful Doris Roberts!) Mary Ann is just trying to survive. Why she does what she does is your guess as well as mine. Being raped in the dirt has made her embrace the dirt. She can no longer live at home in her little girlish room with the dressing-table. She has to descend into the nastiness of life, she has to walk in the shadows. None of this is said in words. Mary Ann barely speaks. Her trauma is palpable. She cannot be touched. When a cop reaches out to help her up after she faints on the platform, she cringes away from him. In many ways, Something Wild is an awesome portrait of post-traumatic stress and not only what it looks like, but what it feels like. There is no outside eye here. We are totally in Mary Ann’s worldview, which has been sullied and shattered.
It’s a heat wave. Mary Ann washes her clothes in the sink, and then hangs them on a rope above her bed, so that the water drips down on her face. She takes so many baths that her landlord gets suspicious and charges her extra for water. She doesn’t care that her mother is probably out of her mind with worry. What happened to her in the bushes cannot be undone, and there will be no going back for her.
Things then take a shift, alarmingly, when, sleep-deprived and nervy, she finds herself on a bridge, staring down into the East River, blinding in the sunlight. Her hands grip the railing. But a guy passing by, a big burly barrel-chested guy (played by the awesome Ralph Meeker), grabs her and throws her back onto the ground, saving her life. He says he lives nearby, in a little basement flat. Why doesn’t she come there and relax for a little bit before she heads on her way home? He seems sincerely anxious about her mental state.
He serves her food. He is solicitous and kind. She is barely able to speak at this point. His apartment is a tiny bit nicer than her own, but just by one or two degrees. Basically, it’s a hovel. She lies down to take a nap, and he says he has to go out for a while. But no worries, make yourself at home.
When he returns home, he is falling-down drunk. She hovers in her bed, watching him stagger about, and she is terrified like an animal in a trap. He comes at her, grabbing for her. As you hoped he wouldn’t, God, you hoped it, and yet God, you just knew he would. You knew that the kindness he showed couldn’t be on the level. And yet because it’s Ralph Meeker, he plays the man with such a sense of sympathy, such a sense of his own loneliness, that it is impossible not to be drawn to him. She kicks him in the face, in self-defense, and she injures his eye to such a degree that he will eventually have to wear an eyepatch. The scene is absolutely horrifying.
But it’s just the beginning. He ends up keeping her prisoner in his basement hovel. He will not let her leave. She screams, she cries, she fights him, and finally, she gives up. And sits by the barred window, staring out at the rain, losing weight and growing paler by the day because she no longer goes outside. She begs to be released. He pleads with her to understand where he is coming from. “You’re my last chance!” he says.
Last chance for what? The script doesn’t say, although the glimpses we get of his life, the sorry swirl of nightly benders and days working hungover in an auto-shop, make Mary Ann’s life look cheery and healthy by comparison. He does not rape Mary Ann, but she does have to fend him off repeatedly when he comes home drunk. It feels like it goes on forever. Time ceases to have meaning. He tries to lighten the mood, by serving wine, and making it seem like they are a couple. If she would only SUBMIT to him and to her situation, then everything would be perfect, why can’t she see that? Why can’t she see that they need to be together?
Mary Ann is not an articulate character and that is one of the main fascinations of Something Wild, and Baker’s performance. It is deeply physical, and also deeply interior. Her body cringes from touch, and tries to re-assert its boundaries in a way that comes off as aloof or standoffish (which is what the five-and-dime girls hate about her). She is so pale that she shines through the shadows of the grimy spaces she finds herself in, post-rape, and she stares around her with horror and terror. What world is she living in? How on earth did she get here? How on earth could she ever go back?
It’s upsetting to watch her fight to get free. It’s upsetting to watch what happens after she DOES get free. Although, my God, it makes total sense.
Of course that is what she would do.
And of course that is where she would go.
It’s awful and yet it’s beautiful too.
Ralph Meeker gives a performance here unlike any other he had done in his career. It is riveting. Heartbreaking. Infuriating. The scene work done between these two actors (the second half of the film would make a great stage play) is unbelievable.
Because Baker has done such a meticulous and fearless job of creating Mary Ann, and showing us “here is what she does next, and here is what happens after that …” we watch Mary Ann’s choices with a kind of doomed fascination. And a sense of protectiveness for this young woman, who was so light-hearted in the first 5 minutes of the film before all that was taken from her. We want to get her into counseling. We want to tell her to not let the rape define her.
Well, we can’t always get what we want.
And who knows. Who’s to say that Mary Ann doesn’t know what she wants? Assuming she doesn’t know what she’s doing could be just another version of trying to co-opt her identity, patronizing her, robbing her of her agency. Who’s to say that her ultimate choice isn’t the right one?
I don’t know. I still struggle with it. The film ends, and I sit there, in the struggle. Upset and frustrated. I hate it. I love it.
But underneath that is still this strange fragile hope that maybe … maybe she’ll be happy.
I mean, I seriously doubt it. But nobody will stop me from hoping.