College student Mary Ann Robinson (Carroll Baker) alights on the platform after taking a night train to her stop at this New York station and proceeds to make her way home through the darkness. She takes a short cut through the park and begins to feel slightly anxious what with nobody about, but then disaster strikes as a figure emerges from the bushes and grabs her, dragging her into the undergrowth and raping her. After the attacker abandons her Mary Ann lies in shock for a few minutes, then gathers her belongings and fixes her clothes, continuing her journey in a daze. Once at the house she shares with her parents, she sneaks upstairs without waking them and bathes, then cuts up her clothes and flushes them down the toilet...
Something Wild for some reason had its title borrowed for the Jonathan Demme film of almost twenty-five years later, which could have been because that too had an unpredictable, female-led plot, or it could have been because it was too good a title not to use more than once. Whichever, this 1961 effort was a labour of love for star Carroll Baker and her then-husband Jack Garfein, a theatre director who was making his second and last feature before returning to the stage. They would break up in a messy divorce at the end of the decade and poor working prospects in America forced Baker to take to Europe for a wage packet, both of which gave rise to some interesting movies that were, and continue to be, looked down on by too many.
This apparent right turn into trash had its precedents as Baker was considered a sex symbol from her first major performance as Baby Doll, a state of affairs which made her feel rather constricted in what she wanted to do with her career, though she was far from the first actress to find herself typecast. But that's what made Something Wild so striking, as it amply illustrated she wasn't just famous because of her platinum blonde, glamorous looks, she really could act as well, and this demonstrated she really should have enjoyed more chances to prove that. For much of the story Mary Ann does not say very much at all, but Baker with her Method acting managed to convey the turmoil that her character could not bring herself to share with anyone else.
This silent trauma Mary Ann is going through after her rape is brought out not only by a sense of what she is suffering as we watch her, but as a sense of what she was like before, a carefree young woman of the early nineteen-sixties whose main worry is her domineering mother (Mildred Dunnock), and that's all in Baker's performance. She skillfully navigated around her character's apparently irrational behaviour as we know there's nothing irrational about it, for the only people who know what she is labouring under are us in the audience, and there's no way we can help her when she leaves home, takes a dingy room to live in and gives up her studies to work in a department store where her shyness does not go down at all well with her co-workers who grow suspicious of her.
As if that were not bad enough, the city is caught in a heatwave, making Mary Ann's life all the harder to take, and again there's nobody she can turn to so events draw in, contriving to leave her walking one fateful day towards a bridge over the river whose water glistens invitingly in the sunshine. Then the film took a strange turn, not romantic exactly but our heroine does land in a relationship when just as she is about to jump, a pair of large hands grab her and stop her. They belong to Mike, played by tough guy actor Ralph Meeker evidently attempting, like Baker, to extend his range, for Mike may be a guardian angel of sorts, but he is also as troubled as the woman he has saved, and after he persuades her to rest in his basement flat he tells her he's not going to let her out. One damn thing after another then, and it's at this point where the drama becomes like a two-hander play that Something Wild doesn't seem very wild at all and loses many of those in the audience. If that doesn't see them off, the emotionally impenetrable ending surely will, but an Aaron Copland score over Saul Bass titles will always intrigue.