Walk on the Wild Side: Story of a New Orleans Brothel 

click to enlarge walkonthewildside.jpg

Walk on the Wild Side (1962)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
September 9, 12 and 16 at Anthology Film Archives in 35mm, part of "From the Pen Of..."

Sturdy journeyman Dmytryk does the best he can with some fairly cheap material—though I haven't read the Nelson Algren source novel, I'd guess that most of the flaws reside therein. The story of a New Orleans brothel, and the romantic melodrama between Texan drifters passing through (Laurence Harvey) and those ensnared by its vice (Jane Fonda, French model-actress Capucine) stinks of trying-too-hard Southern social realism. It comes across phony. Even the character names (Dove Linkhorn, Kitty Twist, Miss Precious) overreach. Attempting to cross-pollinate Tennessee Williams with Carson McCullers, Dmytryk and company create an unsatisfying, neutered facsimile. At least it doesn't reach for Gone With the Wind bigness—the director had already tried that five years prior with Raintree County. Other close cousins from the era include Martin Ritt's The Long, Hot Summer and John Huston's dull McCullers adaptation Reflections in a Golden Eye.

There was no lack of talent in the kitchen. Among the writers who reworked the Algren novel (adding then-groundbreaking lesbianism to the mix in the form of brittle house madam Barbara Stanwyck, looking Margaret Thatcher-ish) were the legendary novelist John Fante (Ask the Dust) and an uncredited Ben Hecht. But Harvey and Fonda's attempts to play poor are unconvincing. Fonda looks amazing, but her dialogue (much of which she reportedly added herself) is some of the phoniest in the film. Harvey and Capucine hated each other on set, and it's palpable, no matter how much his Dove clings to a vanished vision of his fallen angel, the woman he calls his "religion".

Walk on the Wild Side is still of interest, and its bleakness is surprising. Capucine's Hallie must be one of the most depressed romantic leads in history, and the ending is brutally downbeat. Stanwyck's Jo has fun, sinister chemistry with her psychopathic hired muscle Oliver (a cheerless and scary Richard Rust). Elmer Bernstein's score, including the famous title song, is bluesy and beautiful. But the highlights are Saul Bass's surreal, sorta-sexy opening and closing credits sequences, which follow a black tomcat (camera down low) as it slinks through New Orleans streets, and gets into a violent cat-scuffle with a white-furred rival.


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