To start off, let’s not mistake this for the 1986 Jonathan Demme film with the great soundtrack.

Indeed, I’m at a loss after watching Jack Garfein’s Something Wild. Let me recount a few plot points to show why. Lovely teenaged girl Mary Ann (Carroll Baker) is raped on her way home one night from her college classes in New York. She doesn’t tell anyone. After trying to return to normal for a few days, she simply leaves her notebooks on a park bench one day, rents a cheap apartment in a low-rent Lower East Side neighborhood, and tries working in a five-and-dime store, while her distraught parents try to find her. But her inner turmoil roils and she finds herself incapable of being touched by anyone, so eventually she ends up at the Manhattan Bridge prepared to jump off.

She’s rescued by a seemingly nice auto-repair man, Mike (Ralph Meeker), who takes Mary Ann home to his spare basement apartment, feeds her, and gives her a cot to rest on. When he returns home falling-down drunk late at night he tries to touch her, so she kicks him in the eye — but can’t escape the apartment because he’s placed the keys in his pocket. Turns out this is no accident: he intends to keep her there, captive. This seems to go on for weeks, during which she huddles on the cot and refuses to eat. Eventually he asks to marry her, though the line between marriage and sex is overly blurry.

She finally manages to escape from that bleak basement. She joyfully walks through Central Park, eats an apple from a corner produce man, breathes the air. What does she do next? Why, RETURN TO HER CAGE. Creepy captor Mike joyfully welcomes her back. The film ends with her mother visiting the basement apartment and begging her daughter to leave him (he now wears an eye patch, presumably due to permanent eye damage after she kicked him), to which Mary Ann responds, “He’s my husband.”

“Something Wild?” Oh, how I would have preferred that original Manic Pixie Dream Girl from 1986, Melanie Griffith, who drives that awesome car and teaches Jeff Daniels how to enjoy life.

Why did I watch this 1961 movie? Because Kim Morgan’s excellent blog, Sunset Gun, told me it’s a masterpiece. She makes several important points that seem pretty plausible:

  1. The film broke boundaries by showing a rape and portraying its emotional aftermath for the protagonist.
  2. Its expressionistic and gritty cinematography was far ahead of its time.
  3. The film’s difficult and ambivalent ending captures the ineffable results of trauma.

A young Edith Stapleton as the crass next-door neighbor

Let me stress that Morgan’s piece is deeply persuasive, in part due to her lovely prose. “It feels like trauma, it feels Jungian, dreamy, hyper real (with such wonderful location shooting). [The director, Garfein] seems to understand, visually, the horror and fairy tale nature of a victim floating above pain. Mary Ann wants to rid herself of anguish, she wants to float, and yet, she’s stuck in a basement,” she writes. I can agree with this — at least on an intellectual level.

Problem is, that’s not the response I had while watching it. Morgan says, “The ending creates a false kind of happiness (intentional, I think) that sits in your soul with such sadness and complication that the movie will not leave you – after all these years, it’s never left me.” A much less sympathetic Feminéma finished the movie and spluttered, “What the hell?”

Above all, Morgan stresses the fact that Baker’s version of Mary Ann is an deeply affecting character — and although I too was moved by those dark scenes of her wrestling alone with the rape’s aftermath, the movie utterly lost me with the captive-in-the-basement storyline and the crazy ending. In the end, the film seemed less sensitive to the woman’s experience that a nightmarish cautionary tale with no clear upshot beyond don’t get raped — you’ll never recover. (Not that one usually has a choice about being raped.)

Even if I grant that Garfein’s film is more sympathetic to Mary Ann than other films about rape victims from that era, my assessment of two other 1960 films — Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women and Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring, plus Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and perhaps even Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961) — leads me to wonder whether, if we consider these films as a group, their directors served up rape stories less to evoke sympathy from the viewer than to proclaim themselves to be provocateurs on a hitherto taboo subject. Or, perhaps especially in the case of the European directors, to use rape almost on the level of metaphor. At any rate, it seems rape was the topic for international film in the early 60s, and I’m not sure it did women a whole lot of good, at least not immediately.

Kim Morgan’s appreciation for Something Wild makes me wonder: am I simply a 21st-century feminist so locked in the political world of my own time that I lack the historical sensitivity to appreciate an early and even pathbreaking attempt to address the issue of rape? She points out, for example, that Garfein was a Holocaust survivor who well understood “entrapment and subjugation,” and that it remains rare to find films about rape that don’t just display sympathy for the woman but “deal with it as a kind of submersion into a subterranean world of dirty rooms and dreams.” 

To be honest, I’d love to be able to cop to the charge of present-mindedness, and to embrace Morgan’s reading. I trust her argument most for the film’s first half, in which we watch Mary Ann wrestle with her demons and refuse to tell anyone about her experience. But I felt increasingly pushed away from her during the second half of the film. For me at least, Morgan’s position holds less water during that “entrapment and subjugation” part of the film in which Mary Ann and Mike face off as captive and captor, a hour of screen time that concludes — crazily — with something resembling love between them.

To buy Morgan’s argument, I believe,one would have to see the rape as real and her captivity as an almost metaphorical extension of her suffering. In fact, during the film’s second half not only did I feel less sympathy and more confusion, but the cinematography makes a major shift toward a kind of theatricality that conveys an odd artificiality. Locked in that basement, we watch Mary Ann as if she’s on a stage and we’re an audience being tested. The film asks members of its audience stretches beyond their comfort zones, but it doesn’t feel — to me at least — as if we’re doing this for the benefit of Mary Ann or other rape victims, but instead for some other aesthetic purpose (or even for the glory of the director).

I think, instead, Something Wild and the other four films I’ve mentioned display an almost prurient fixation with tracing the destruction of female innocence. Most of these films rely on an expressly innocent (and usually blonde) victim, often contrasted with other (cheap) women, like Edith Stapleton here. As a result, I return to the speculation I offered in last year’s post about Two Women and Virgin Spring: I believe this was film’s way of dealing with the sexual revolution — to offer histrionic cautionary tales rather than explore rape per se from the perspective of victims.

To say this film is less objectionable than the others of its era is, in the end, not to give it many accolades at all. I stick with my earlier position: rape should not be depicted onscreen, as it leads to (at best) such a deeply conflicted portrayal as Something Wild and (at worst) an awkwardly titillating depiction of female pain and debasement.