Revived for a week at the IFC, Jack Garfein’s Something Wild, an independent production first released during the Kennedy administration, is an urban fairy tale in several senses.
Walking home from the subway, a dreamy Bronx college student (Garfein’s then-wife and fellow Actors Studio member Carroll Baker) is dragged into the bushes and raped. She tells no one, embarking on a solitary odyssey through the city’s lower depths. After renting a wretched East Harlem room (with dingbat Jean Stapleton, no less, as the floozy next door), Baker is saved from jumping off the Manhattan Bridge by a lonely, hard-drinking auto mechanic (Ralph Meeker). He imprisons her in his Lower East Side basement apartment, but this “protective custody” becomes something else once she visits him with an injury comparable to her own.
Something Wild is very much a vehicle for Baker—who was several years past Baby Doll and still playing the woman-child. For the first half, she dramatizes her trauma as a solo act, intensely physical when alone, provoking all other characters with her programmatic lack of affect. Later, she goes one-on-one with blustery Meeker (or, in the last scene, Mildred Dunnock, another Baby Doll vet, as her self-absorbed mother). Meeker famously followed Brando in the stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but his wounded brute is more suggestive of the young Ben Gazzara, whom Garfein directed in The Strange One.
In addition to two Hollywood names, Garfein enlisted contributions from Aaron Copland (his first movie score in a dozen years), celebrated cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan (stellar New York location work), and designer Saul Bass, who contributed the stridently urban opening credits. Something Wild was released in late 1961, but internal evidence suggests that it was, at least partially, shot several years earlier—in the aftermath of a prize Actors Studio imbroglio. A protégé of Elia Kazan, Garfein fell afoul of Lee Strasberg while directing a play that featured Strasberg’s daughter Susan. Strasberg pére took charge; his wife, Paula, informed the press Garfein contributed nothing to the production and, moreover, invented his past as a teenage Auschwitz survivor. Given that the Garfeins and Strasbergs lived in the same apartment building, this backstage battle is at least as compelling as that of Something Wild (and it did in fact inspire a novel).
Knowledge of Garfein’s personal trauma—both in wartime Europe and postwar New York—cannot help but inform one’s sense of Baker’s acting. But despite her fascinatingly behavioral performance (and an elaborate dream sequence replete with Sabine women and dripping eyeballs), Something Wild makes little psychological sense. (In his brief but evocative review, Jonas Mekas praised Something Wild as “bad in a very original way… more stupid than bad.”) For all Schüfftan’s fabulous street photography, the movie’s uneasy blend of symbolism and naturalism might have worked better onstage—or, given the David and Lisa romance of two disturbed souls, as played out in a mental-hospital day room.