News and Commentary – Something Wild About the Patriarchy?

Last night we eagerly unwrapped the new Criterion Collection special edition of Jack Garfein’s Something Wild, from 1961.  New to us, this was a movie aimed directly at Mid Century Cinema’s sweet-spot: gorgeous time-capsule-perfect street shots of New York City; raw, daring performances by the hip cohort of the Actors Studio that contrasted with and challenged Hollywood conventions; and with obvious aspirations to contribute to an independent film movement suggested by Cassavetes’ sensational Shadows (1959).  All that, and  cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan (he shot Port of Shadows for Marcel Carné in 1938 and was fresh from Robert Rossen’s The Hustler), music by Aaron Copeland, and a terrific title sequence from Saul Bass – who could ask for anything more?

Well, turns out, we could, but more about that in a moment.  The first third of Something Wild is full of promise: the location work – subways, bridges, tenements – is thrilling, the performances first rate, and the initial impetus for the story powerful.  Young student Mary Ann (Carol Baker) is raped on her way home from school (handled in an assured and non-exploitative sequence), and from there the movie deals honestly with her trauma, and her shame.  It is 1961 out there, and her instinct is to simply wipe away the episode—certainly she won’t tell her family, or the cops.  Will she be able to reclaim her life?  Possibly not: lingering on the precipice of the Manhattan Bridge, she contemplates suicide, but is rescued at the last moment by Mike (Ralph Meeker).  There is the danger, of course, that things could get cheesy from there.

No worries on that front—Something Wild has a different agenda.  It is a message movie, and that message is: women should not be independent.  (I had to double check IMDB to make sure the movie didn’t take home the Golden Apron at the Phillis Schally film festival.)  Scene by scene, choice by choice, Something Wild lectures that the only place for women is in the home, subservient to her man. Fleeing her cloying, dependent mother and abandoning school, Mary Ann braves oppressive, asphyxiating subways (no place for a lady) to find low-end work (in the company of an unwelcoming, catty cohort), and uses her wages to rent a dismal cold-water flat from an exploitative landlord—where her next-room neighbor, an aging eccentric of questionable repute (Jean Stapleton), is there more or less to show what the future might hold for women on their own.  

“Luckily” for Mary Ann, she is saved at the last moment by seemingly-nice-fellow Mike, who feeds our exhausted damsel-in-distress and lets her crash at his place while he returns to work.  But before you can say “thanks” Mike turns out to be an abusive alcoholic who locks Mary Ann in and manages to hold her prisoner in his basement studio (complete with bars on the windows).  Why should she go out?  Why should she work?  He can provide for her.  Rather explicitly, Mike asserts ownership of her, nominally on the basis of having saved her life, but more generally on the principle that women are property, and as a low-status male, she is his “last chance.”  And after all, he loves her. Menacingly (and especially unfortunately for someone with Mary Ann’s PTSD), he explains that it would be better and easier for both of them if she “went along.”

After an excruciatingly long and unpleasant captivity, Mary Ann finally escapes and enjoys a glorious day of freedom wandering the city streets.  And then – wait for it – she decides to return to Mike’s apartment (yes, I know, even he seems shocked at first).  And in a happy coda, reuniting with her tearful, long-suffering mother (Mildred Dunnock), Mary Ann explains that she is not returning “home”—because after a movie’s worth of endless wandering (still love those city shots) she has found her proper place: married to Mike, living in the basement, and, most gloriously, now expecting a baby.  As the kids would say, OMG.  This is the kind of movie that could make Sam Peckinpah a feminist.  

Something Wild