Something Wild: Criterion Collection
March 22, 2017
Founded in 1947, the Actors Studio became known as a mecca for Method actors to hone their craft, producing such famous alumni as James Dean, Paul Newman and Marlon Brando. The 1950s and 1960s saw many Hollywood films populated by these actors and a rare few, like On the Waterfront (1954), populated entirely by them. Little-seen independent film Something Wild (1961) is one such film. Directed by Actors Studio teacher Jack Garfein and starring his then-wife Carroll Baker (a student of the Studio), it was a gritty adaptation of the novel Mary Ann by Alex Karmel.
A beautiful young woman named Mary Ann (Baker) is sexually assaulted on the way home from school. She manages to make it back home where, emotionally shattered and physically exhausted, she curls up near a radiator in an effort to get warm and promptly falls asleep. She wakes up later and cleans up. For the first 14 minutes there is no dialogue and Carroll Baker brilliantly conveys the complex emotions her character is experiencing through body language and facial expressions. Baker is the only person on-screen for most of that time and she holds our attention not because of what has happened to her but how she processes it.
Mary Ann doesn’t tell anybody and walks around in a daze, going through the motions of attending school and confounding her mother as to why she’s acting so odd as of late. Mary Ann wanders the streets of New York City before coming across a building with a vacancy. It’s something of a shifty dive but she doesn’t care. Mary Ann gets a part-time job at a department store as a way of escaping from her old life that is too painful for her to bear. She just wants to disappear and be anonymous – easy to do in a city as big as New York. She just wants to be left alone and this comes across as cold and unfriendly to her co-workers (including a young Doris Roberts) and her gregarious next-door neighbor (Stapleton).
Things get so bad that Mary Ann almost commits suicide by jumping off a bridge only to be pulled back by a man named Mike (Meeker), a mechanic that works nearby. He invites her to stay at his place where she can collect herself while he goes to work. She awakens after a much needed sleep and he prepares her something to eat. He seems nice enough but what is his deal and can she trust him? Is he really that kind? The rest of Something Wild plays out the tense relationship that develops between these two people.
Baker delivers a powerful performance, conveying the anguish and the trauma Mary Ann experiences as she tries to make sense of what happened to her and continue on when no one else knows or cares. She was a carefree spirit and that was shattered after being raped and now her life will never be the same. How does someone deal with that?
Ralph Meeker matches Baker for intensity as a man whose motivations aren’t immediately evident. Why won’t he let Mary Ann leave his apartment? He clearly has his own personal demons, which the actor hints at but along with Mary Ann we can only speculate as to what those might be.
Something Wild is a powerful, character-driven drama heavy on behavior and light on plot but that’s the point. What is important in this film is what people say and do while we observe how the relationship between Mike and Mary Ann plays out. It allows Baker and Meeker to play off each other and give it all they’ve got in this absorbing drama.
This new transfer looks great, preserving the filmic quality of the richly textured black and white cinematography. They detail is fantastic, resulting in a stunning picture.
Film critic Kim Morgan interviews director Jack Garfein about his work with the Actors Studio and making Something Wild. He started off as an actor but was told that he’d be better suited as a director. Crushed, he nevertheless took the advice and studied with Lee Strasberg. He worked with then-unknown actors James Dean, Ben Gazzara and others. He was the first director admitted into the Actors Studio and talks about what drew him to Something Wild. He also talks about how the film got made, including the casting and hiring of key crew members.
There is an illustrated audio interview with actress Carroll Baker who talks about how she got into acting. She auditioned for and got into the Actors Studio, eventually appearing in films like Giant (1956) and Baby Doll (1956). She talks about her experience making Something Wild, the challenge of doing an indie film, and working with Ralph Meeker.
“Behind the Method” features historian Foster Hirsch talking about Method acting. He talks about how Marlon Brando, Dean and Montgomery Clift changed acting, bringing a more realistic approach. He talks about how Something Wild is a quintessential Method acting film.
Finally, there is “Master Class with Jack Garfein,” which features edited footage from one of his acting classes in 2014. He talks about the nuts and bolts of acting, like the difference between stage acting and doing it in front of a camera.