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SOMETHING WILD (director/writer: Jack Garfein; screenwriter: from the novel “Mary Ann” by Alex Karmel; cinematographer: Eugen Schüfftan; editor: Carl Lerner; music: Aaron Copland; cast: Carroll Baker (Mary Ann Robinson), Ralph Meeker (Mike), Mildred Dunnock (Mrs. Gates), Jean Stapleton (Shirley Johnson), Martin Kosleck (landlord), Charles Watts (Warren Gates), Clifton James (Detective Bogart), George L. Smith (store manager), Doris Roberts (Mary Ann’s co-worker); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: George Justin; United Artists; 1961)
“An urban fairy tale oddity.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Offbeat drama about a rape vic that never is convincing or does it ever make sense, unless you’re willing to say love doesn’t have to make sense no matter how outrageously achieved. The film was poorly received, was a commercial bomb and was considered misunderstood at the time of its release (its post-traumatic rape tale suggesting marriage is a cure-all, which seems like only so much psychology babble).

It’s based on the 1958 novel “Mary Ann” by Alex Karmel. Czech-born child Holocaust survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, writer-director Jack Garfein (“The Strange One”), was married at the time to the film’s star Carroll Baker and fellow Actors Studio member and he was known for his work in the theater and of being a protégé of Elia Kazan. The filmmaker gives the black-and-white melodrama a defining European arty look, and perhaps a personal look at how he adjusted to life after being imprisoned in the camp by finding someone who loved him enough to save him from his miserable memories. The one thing Garfein can’t do, however, is make it cinematic friendly, as it seems to be a work better suited for the stage.

On a hot summer evening Bronx college coed Mary Ann Robinson (Carroll Baker) gets off the elevated No. 4 train and merrily takes a short-cut home through the park. Mary Ann’s brutally raped when pulled into the bushes and after the attack she sneaks into her middle-class parents’ town house in total shock, and fails to tell her self-absorbed, repressed, bigoted mother (Mildred Dunnock) and stepfather (Charles Watts) about the attack. She destroys her clothes and takes a bath, and will soon drop out of school.

The distraught Mary Ann rents a dumpy room in an East Harlem tenement from the creepy landlord (Martin Kosleck), and her neighbor is the floozy Shirley Johnson (Jean Stapleton). She gets a sales counter job in the five-and-dime, and is saved from jumping off the Manhattan Bridge by a troubled alcoholic auto mechanic named Mike (Ralph Meeker). He lets her stay in his shabby Lower East Side basement apartment. After Mike drunkenly makes a pass at her, she kicks him so hard in the head he loses an eye. He wakes up the next day not remembering how he got wounded, but imprisons her in his apartment and tells her she is his “last chance” to be saved. For the next few months he gently but awkwardly woos her with marriage proposals while she either pleads for her release or sinks into an apathetic state until she finally accepts his proposal. It was sheer drudgery watching this overlong and poorly paced story line unfold, yet there was a perverse oddness about it that made it enticing. To its credit, it makes references to the Stockholm Syndrome before such a psychological response to kidnapping was known.

Garfein’s filming gimmicks include the first 15 minutes free of dialogue and a dream sequence in which Mary Ann gets off on a painting of the rape of the Sabine women.

The brilliant cinematography of NYC was by the innovative German-born Eugen Schufftan, who had done pioneering work for silent films in such classics as Metropolis (1927) and Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Aaron Copland’s jazzy, hard-edged score was another aspect of the film that went unnoticed at the time of its release because the film was so poorly received, but when put on a CD years later it received the acclaim it deserved.

The weird melodrama plays out as an urban fairy tale oddity, whose strangeness might attract the more accepting viewer; it also serves as an experimental dramatic vehicle for “Baby Doll” star Baker and the often underappreciated Meeker, who play outrageous psychologically crippled characters whose love affair defies logic.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”