December is a good month for underseen masterpieces. Two pictures -- both far ahead of their time and both brilliant, are being released on DVD and Burn On Demand. Today, Criterion has released Design for Living, Ernst Lubitsch's take on the trials, titillations, and torment of a kind of relationship usually only seen in *true* adult films -- a ménage à trois -- and one between Gary Coopper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins, no less. Sublime, soulful and very, very sexy, the movie is funny, complicated and even, at times, heartbreaking. A "gentleman's agreement" is never easy. I have a lot to say about one of Lubitsch's greatest (adapted from Noel Coward's play by Ben Hecht) so I was incredibly happy to write the accompanying essay/booklet for this release. Please check it out (read a portion of my essay above this post). And then there's Something Wild (MGM Limited Edition Collection) directed by Jack Garfein and starring Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker. I presented the picture for TCM last year as a guest programmer and am thrilled it's finally being released. With that excitement, I'm re-posting my original piece.
It’s not wild, necessarily. But it's unforgettable.
I never understood the title of Jack Garfein’s beautiful, sad, confusingly romantic and richly empathetic Something Wild. If the title refers to the movie’s brutal rape, a wild animalistic act, it’s certainly nothing wild for the tragic protagonist, Mary Ann (played by a powerfully touching and brave Carroll Baker). Something dreadful is more apt, as she suffers the rough hands of a faceless brute, emerging from the trees like a demon spirit.
And her demise, repulsion, sickness, panic, alienation and finally, near-life-ending depression, isn’t worthy of wild either. Something despondent. She’s desperate to fling herself from her inner demons. She cannot discuss nor process the rape. She can’t even tell her parents. In a classic panic-stricken fight or flight scenario -- she flees from a crowded subway car, gasping for breath as commuters rub against every inch of her violated body. More and more, lovely Mary Ann turns into a withdrawn, clinically depressed, misunderstood woman -- a woman filled with terror and shame -- a woman who hates herself even if she did nothing wrong. A woman who was raped. This is how rape victims feel.
And rape is not something her potential savior/captor Mike (Ralph Meeker, who should have played more roles like this -- his range is extraordinary) can understand -- though in his own wordless way – he tries. He’s nothing wild either. A sad sack with a working class job, a dumpy demeanor (this is not smart alec Kiss Me Deadly Meeker) and a drinking problem, he’s not a healthy man, and not healthy towards women, but then…weirdly sympathetic. He wants this woman. He needs this woman. He needs her to save him.
The picture starts with the innocence of Mary Ann's name. Mary Ann exits off the subway and makes her way home, at night. This appears a usual walk for the woman, but something gives her a start. A rustle of trees, a paper cup blowing on the ground, a general feeling of unease. Her fear is well founded, as a large man, almost appearing like a monster, emerges from the trees, grabs the woman, and rapes her. And he appears to rape her for a long time – even tearing off the cross she wears on her neck. God is not on her side. This rape is not titillating. This rape is just sad and draining, and you feel like Mary Ann walked into a monstrous tree satyr.
The film continues for a good twenty minutes (or more, which seems unprecented for American movies at that time) without any dialogue, and we watch Mary Ann silently trudge her way home, where she bathes, scrubs, looks at the cuts on her body with horror, take all of her clothes and cut them into tiny pieces. She flushes the tattered garments down the toilet. And then she sleeps.
Since the rape has made it impossible for her to conduct herself in normal life, Mary Ann abandons home, unannounced, leaving her mother in a panic to find her. She gets a job where a bunch of judgmental/jealous women make fun of her, she takes a tiny, dumpy little NYC flat, where a bare light bulb offers her only illumination and a loud floozy (Jean Stapleton) cackles nearby. It seems Mary Ann can’t escape the depraved and the diseased – or perhaps, she’s throwing herself right into it – the belly of the best, so to speak. Repulsion meets The Tenantmeets The Collector. And yet, Garfeien’s picture was made before any of these.
But that beast and that belly are not what she expected. After becoming so despondent, that she decides the best choice is to take her own life, she nearly jumps off the Manhattan Bridge. She would have accomplished her act of self-destruction if not for another beast (Meeker), who saves her from leaping.
And then, he keeps her. At first, one thinks, she needs to stay. After all, he’s looking out for her – she can’t attempt suicide again. But the movie veers into far more complex areas after he locks her in – for good. Since confinement, the act of being held down and forced to submit has plagued this poor woman for months; she reacts with anger and panic. And for good reason – he won’t ever let her leave. Like The Collector, he’s keeping his sad little butterfly – a butterfly without wings.
But why? These are questions the picture never easily answers. You understand that he is also a cheerless, lonely person, an alcoholic, and a man who needs this woman near him. In his own twisted way he loves her. When he stumbles home drunk and attempts to molest Mary Ann, she reacts violently and with self-preservation, poking out one of his eyes. Suddenly the film merges Beauty and the Beast with Greek Tragedy -- Mary Ann turns Mike into a Cyclops. The next morning, he claims to barely remember the evening, and seems nonchalant about the eye patch he now must wear. He reckons he may have gotten into some kind of fight. Or maybe he does remember. Maybe he respects Mary Ann for fighting back. We just don’t know. And then again, we oddly can’t hate him.
And so there they continue living in his basement hovel of an apartment, biding their days with his “romantic” meals and need to be near Mary Ann. Mary Ann remains adamant to leave, but she will soon soften. Is this a positive step? Is this a romantic reaction to her savior? Is this indeed, the only man she can now trust? Is this Stockholm syndrome? In any case, it’s all very sad.
The movie, released in 1961, an expressionistic/naturalistic work of art that also recalls Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, before Polanski’s film was made, and Bergman, was far ahead of its time in its European sensibilties (and yet, with its actors and setting, it feels wholly American). Garfein (then Baker’s husband), who survived the Holocaust, well understood the idea of entrapment and subjugation. I have seen few films that not only deal with rape in a sympathetic light (that’s not so hard), but deal with it as a kind of submersion into a subterranean world of dirty rooms and dreams – dreams, in one terrifying moment, where girls have no faces (Lars Von Trier would love this movie) – a world where trauma is expressed through the sounds of vulgar good-time girls, the oppressiveness of the subway, the simultaneous attraction and repulsion to men, work, the city, and sex. If anyone finds Mary Ann’s feelings and actions unrealistic, they have no concept of the odd co-mingling of unreality and harshness that an act of rape can make a woman feel. For anyone wanting to forget the memory -- repression and submersion is natural.
And it’s all very much like a movie you were likely to have never seen in 1961, or now, for that matter. Garfein based his movie on the novel Mary Ann (a better title I think), and enlisted some superior talents to give the movie an expressionistic, gritty, dream-like appeal.
The great Aaron Copland provided the potent music; the legendary Saul Bass created the title sequence, and brilliant cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan worked as DP. Since Schüfftan lensed Lang's Metropolis, Carné's Port of Shadows, Gance's Napoléon and Franju's Eyes Without a Face (among many other accomplishments), the look of the picture is both grubby and dreamlike. It feels like trauma, it feels Jungian, dreamy, hyper real (with such wonderful location shooting). He 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.
Through his lens, Schüfftan both raises Mary Ann from her trauma, while keeping her firmly on the ground -- like Thomas Hardy’s Tess of Tess the D’Urbervilles removing herself from rape by becoming diaphanous and floating above molester Alex huffing on top of her, Mary Ann keeps herself whisper light, and yet, stuck in the dirt. She stays in that basement. It’s tragic, gorgeous, poetic, even mythic, how she lives in two realities, which makes the ending incredibly complex. Mary Ann stays with Mike. How should one feel about this? She’s damaged, she’s now pregnant, she’s in love and yet, she still looks heartbroken. 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.
Rape is never easy to come to terms with, we know that. But rape isn’t always met with counselors and discussions and getting in touch with your feelings. Perhaps Mary Ann got in touch with Mike. Perhaps she did not. Whatever the case, poor Mary Ann. I hate her entrapment, and I hate that she feels she has nowhere to go, and yet, I pray Mike treats her sensitively. I feel wrong for this, but I want them to work out. This is a dream. Or a nightmare. I can only hope she’s truly happy one day. Not wild, but, happy?