When deciding what movie to watch, I often find myself deciding upon a film based on a specific actor, a specific director, certain genre… whatever I happen to be obsessed with at the moment. It’s probably because of these kicks that many of the classic era’s biggest classics, e.g. Gone With the Wind have not yet made it to my DVD/Blu Ray player. Anyway, right now, I’ve been watching and seeking out Ralph Meeker.
I discovered Ralph Meeker as the antagonist in Jeopardy (1953) with Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan. In Jeopardy, Stanwyck plays a woman who is racing against time (and the tide) to try and find help for her husband played by Sullivan. Sullivan ends up becoming trapped under a wooden piling when he tries to save his and Stanwyck’s son from being seriously injured on a collapsing, dilapidated jetty. Sullivan cannot free his leg, and neither Stanwyck nor their young son are strong enough to move the piling. To make matters worse, the tide is coming in. If Sullivan isn’t saved soon, he will drown.
Stanwyck leaves Sullivan at the beach in search of someone who can help. She comes across Lawson, played by Meeker, a man who seemingly wants to help her and her husband. However, it is revealed that Lawson is an escaped convict and basically uses Stanwyck as a way to escape the police. Meeker’s Lawson is terrifying, but also really hot, in that dangerous kind of way. He’s the type of dangerous that only seems sexy in the movies–in real life, you’d be scared to death and calling 911.
Anyway, after seeing Jeopardy, I started seeking out more Ralph Meeker films. Unfortunately Meeker seems like he had more success on television and on the stage than in film; but he does have a good sized filmography to keep me going for awhile.
One such film that I watched recently was Something Wild (1961) starring Meeker and Carroll Baker. This is a film that I’d seen on the Criterion shelves often, but had never seen it. I’d actually recorded it on TCM back when Baker was honored one day during TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. After getting on my Ralph Meeker kick, I was ready to watch this film. I’d also heard that this film was somewhat bleak and stressful at times. It seemed like a film that you’d have to be in the mood for and one that you’d watch at night.
Anyway, I loved Something Wild. I thought it was a fantastic film. In this movie, Baker plays Mary Ann, a college student who is attacked and raped by an unknown assailant. Normally, I do not like films that feature rape. Fortunately however, the rape scene was not graphic and the director chose to use specific close-ups and shots to get the idea across as to what was happening, but did not actually show anything. Anyway, Mary Ann is understandably traumatized and terrified.
Mary Ann tries to get her life back together and put her trauma behind her. She even goes as far as to destroy every piece of clothing that she was wearing the night she was attacked. Mary Ann doesn’t tell her mother or stepfather what happened. I get the sense that she felt shame, embarrassment and also was traumatized to the point that she just wanted to put it past her. While trying to ride the subway to get to school, Mary Ann faints when a large mob of people rush on and squeeze her into other people. Her PTSD would affect her later when her co-workers do the same thing to her and she has to go home and vomit. The police end up bringing Mary Ann home, much to the horror of her prim and proper mother. Mary Ann’s mother, instead of asking why the police are bringing her home, chooses instead to go on a tirade about what the neighbors will think. It’s obvious that if Mary Ann were to reveal to her mother the true source of her anxiety, her mother would make it about herself and make Mary Ann feel even worse.
Mary Ann ends up leaving home (without telling her mother or anyone else, causing her to be a “Missing Person” for much of the film) and finds a gross apartment in a tenement for $5/week. Her neighbor is Jean Stapleton (aka Edith Bunker) whose constant drinking and carousing with men brings Mary Ann much stress. Mary Ann’s job at the five and dime isn’t much better, as her co-worker, Doris Roberts (grandma from “Everybody Loves Raymond”) is very abrasive and gossips behind Mary Ann’s back about her aloofness and quiet nature.
One day, Mary Ann decides to end everything and prepares to jump off a bridge. She is saved right before jumping by Mike (played by Meeker), a mechanic. Mike takes Mary Ann to his home so that she can relax and rest. Mike’s home isn’t much better than Mary Ann’s. It’s sparsely decorated with only the basic essentials. Mary Ann at first is hesitant to go to Mike’s home (because duh, he’s a stranger), but acquiesces when he assures her that he’ll be at work all day. Mike at first seems like a sweet man, but it becomes clear that he’s troubled when he arrives home from the bar completely trashed. He’s so drunk that he can barely walk. He sees Mary Ann and tries to force himself on her. She is able to fight him off and he passes out. She spends the rest of the evening understandably terrified.
For most of the remainder of the film, Mike will not allow Mary Ann to leave. He is able to lock the door from the inside and outside and always has the key on his person. At the beginning, one might think that Mike’s just keeping her inside so that he can make sure she won’t harm herself. However, it becomes apparent that Mike has other motives for keeping Mary Ann at his house. As the audience, I should be upset and turned off that Mike is holding Mary Ann hostage; but it becomes clear that this man is troubled. He is lonely. No, he shouldn’t be keeping her hostage, but he is afraid of being alone. He doesn’t want to be alone.
Both Ralph Meeker and Carroll Baker bring a lot of emotion and complexity to their portrayals of their characters. Meeker is a troubled man, who seemingly only wants someone to love and take care of him. Baker is trying to overcome emotional trauma caused by a stranger, and is basically forced to trust a strange man that he won’t bring her harm. I really enjoyed this film and would watch it again. I loved the gritty setting, the great music and the performances of Meeker and Baker.