A complex exploration of the physical and emotional effects of trauma, Something Wild stars Carroll Baker, in a layered performance, as a college student who attempts suicide after a brutal sexual assault but is stopped by a mechanic played by Ralph Meeker—whose kindness, however, soon takes an unsettling turn. Startlingly modern in its frankness and psychological realism, the film represents one of the purest on-screen expressions of the sensibility of the intimate community of artists around New York’s Actors Studio, which transformed American cinema in the mid-twentieth century. With astonishing location and claustrophobic interior photography by Eugene Schüfftan, an opening-title sequence by the inimitable Saul Bass, and a rhythmic score by Aaron Copland, this film by Jack Garfein is a masterwork of independent cinema.
Jack Garfein’s second (and last) film, Something Wild, gets a surprise Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection, who present the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on a dual-layer disc. The film has received a new 2K restoration, scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
I expected this to look good, and I still think I had fairly high expectations for the presentation, even considering the film’s hard-to-come-by history (the only home video release I know of prior to this edition is an MGM manufactured-on-demand DVD), yet somehow Criterion has still managed to surpass those expectations.
The biggest surprise for me in particular was the restoration work itself. I can’t speak as to the condition of the film print used, whether it was in rough shape or excellent condition, but it doesn’t matter too much. Either way the restoration work has been incredibly thorough, and I’m hard-pressed to recall any type of blemish, other than some fine scratches. The materials look like the could be brand new.
The digital delivery itself is also excellent. The film has a very grainy look, and it can get a bit heavy in some shots, but it’s rendered so well here: it’s clean, not noisy, and very natural looking. Other than some softer long shots (which appear to be a byproduct of filming and nothing to do with the digital restoration or encode) the image is highly detailed and consistently sharp. Fine patters, textures, and the little details come through crystal sclear. Contrast levels look very much spot on, delivering decent whites and very strong blacks, the details still popping out of the shadows of the darker scenes. Noise isn’t a concern and the image keeps a very natural look.
It’s a superb presentation. It’s sharp, it’s clean, and it looks very much like a film that could have been shot within the last few years. It looks very good.
The film’s audio—presented in lossless 1.0 PCM mono—also managed to exceed my expectations, though admittedly my expectations were a bit lower for this aspect. Despite the opening music (and then the portions of the score throughout the rest of the film) sounding a bit harsh, the audio is fairly robust for being a monaural presentation created around 56-years ago. Range is pretty good, as is fidelity, all noticeable in the background sound effects, whether it be cracking tree branches during the opening or the city traffic that is constantly flowing in the background throughout the filmDialogue is very clear and despite some audible background noise in a few sequences the track has been cleaned up amazingly well. Considering its low-budget and age I wasn’t expecting much but it ended up sounding rather good.
Criterion goes an interesting route with the supplements here, not focusing too heavily on the film itself. Since the film was actually born out of the Actor’s Studio Criterion focuses most of the supplementary material on the organization, its history, and “the Method.”
This all starts with a new interview between film critic Kim Morgan and director Jack Garfein, recorded exclusively for this release. For 27-minutes Garfein talks about his move to America after the war (he was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust) and his path to joining the Actor’s studio after taking a shine to acting. Though he initially joined as an actor he ended up taking on a director role, putting together projects with other members including the likes of Pat Hingle, Maureen Stapleton, Ben Gazzara, and James Dean. From here he talks about his eventual (and short lived) move to filmmaking, directing Something Wild and how it stalled his filmmaking career, though he still does teach at the Actor’s Studio.
Actor Carroll Baker expands on some elements from Garfein’s interview during her “illustrated audio interview,” which is basically her talking over photos and clips. She gives background on how she got into the Actor’s Studio, how her work there eventually led to her Hollywood career, and then recalls working with Garfein and Ralph Meeker on Something Wild. It’s a wonderful, and fairly funny interview, with Baker sharing some of her fonder memories from the period.
Criterion then looks at the history of method acting and the Actor’s Studio in their supplement Behind the Method, featuring historian Foster Hirsch. Hirsch first covers the origins and history of “the Method,” how it made its way eventually into film, and the impact it had on film history. He also talks about Something Wild and the performances from both Baker and Meeker, explaining how they and the film offer as “pure an example” of method acting in film that he knows.
The last feature ultimately offers a decent academic feature on method acting, while the other two offer more personal view points, but the next feature, Master Class with Jack Garfein, gives a terrific first-hand look at it and the Actor’s Studio. Put together using footage shot over the course of two days in 2014, this 38-minute feature shows Jack Garfein heading a class, first giving an introduction and overview to his students/participants and then setting up activities/scenes for his class to partake in, which we get to see small portions of. A really thoughtful and fascinating inclusion.
The release then closes with an insert, this one featuring an essay by Sheila O’Malley, covering a number of subjects around the film, from its unusual narrative that doesn’t look to coddle its audience or moralize what is happening, to the subtle gestures of its performers, and then how the film came to find a new audience almost 50 years later.
Admittedly, outside of the essay, there’s actually not a whole lot about the film itself, Hirsch talking more about the performances when he mentions the film, and both Baker and Garfein talk chiefly about its making. But I enjoyed the direction Criterion went with the supplements, focusing on the Actor’s Studio and method acting, and the impact they had on film acting. They’re a nicely thought out set of features.
On its own the sharp presentation for the film would be reason enough for admirers of the film to pick this up, but the focus on the Actor’s Studio and method acting in the fascinating collection of supplements offers a whole other layer to this release. Very highly recommended.