Something Wild ★★★½

Fascinating but uneven film about the consequences of a sexual assault.  It’s very unusual for an American film of its time in depicting the trauma and inner torment of the young college student (ably played by Carroll Baker) who is brutally raped by a stranger returning home in the evening.  She is not at peace in the middle class world of her self-absorbed mother (great acting here by the always reliable Mildred Dunnock), but also thrown into a tailspin when she tries to create a new life in a seedy tenement in lower Manhattan.

The camerawork, the on-location shots in NYC, and the depiction of the underside of New York with its homeless derelicts, aging prostitutes, slimy landlords and cruel shopgirls is remarkable in the first half of the film.  It’s the second half that throws off the film’s balance.  After being rescued by an auto mechanic when she attempts to kill herself by jumping off the Manhattan Bridge in despair, the young woman takes refuge in his apartment, where he then keeps her captive.  The film then becomes a weird two-person drama of captive and captor, with a highly improbable ending.  This sequence is also unusual and well-acted, but it’s such an abrupt shift from the first half that it’s hard to understand the screenwriter’s intent.  On one level, it seems to be a continuation of the theme of a woman as the fantasy object of desire and need.  But it’s just too different from what went before and the ending (which I won’t reveal) seems to negate the whole premise of the film.

Nonetheless, a film worth watching as a forerunner of later naturalistic filmmakers such as Cassavetes.  And some great character actors (Jean Stapleton, Doris Roberts, and Martin Kosleck) in minor roles, and great New York locations.  I saw this on the Criterion Channel, and I believe it’s departing at the end of August, so catch it while you can.

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