3 out of 5 stars

The most famous aspect of Walk on the Wild Side, Saul and Elaine Bass’s magnificent title sequence, also sums up the disappointments in store as this watered-down adaptation of Nelson Algren’s hard-hitting novel progresses. Understated and perfect, the sequence begins with a black cat lurking in a pipe, then follows it walking, walking, walking… the effect is attention-grabbing, even suspenseful… before a fight erupts with another cat, this one white.

The subtext appears obvious, especially for a film set in the southern United States during the 1930s. However, Walk on the Wild Side, which struck many even in the early-1960s as ‘Walk on the Tame Side‘, and will certainly seem that way to modern viewers, barely addresses the question of race at all. 

Mind you, though it never delivers the steamy Southern Gothic melodrama it promises or achieves the relentless character examination of the director’s own The Caine Mutiny (1954), Edward Dmytryk’s film retains some dramatic interest in the way it concentrates on four women in the life of its nominal male star, while relegating him to virtual irrelevance. And it also has a historic interest in featuring one of the first major lesbian parts in Hollywood (Barbara Stanwyck’s Jo Courtney).

The pipe where the cat’s hiding is echoed early in the action, as the setting where Dove (Laurence Harvey) runs into Kitty (Jane Fonda, in only her second screen role). Dove is en route to New Orleans to hunt out an old girlfriend, Hallie; so is Kitty, or so she claims, and together they make their way to the city, riding like hobos in a boxcar.

Their relationship is chaste—upstanding Dove is still faithful to the girl he’s seeking, it seems—and in any case, they soon fall out after Kitty tries to scam café owner Teresina (Anne Baxter). “People who are doing you a favour are too busy patting themselves on the back to be watchful,” the worldly-wise young woman observes. Dove, however, remains living at Teresina’s establishment and working for her while he hunts, and soon discovers, his long-lost Hallie (Capucine).

He believes a happy ending’s due, but audiences know better, having already figured out that Hallie is now a prostitute in the bordello run by Courtney (Stanwyck) and her sinister sidekick Oliver (Richard Rust). The remainder of the film plays out first the saga of the naive Dove’s slow realisation, and then a kind of tug-of-war over Kitty.

He wants to “rescue” her from prostitution, but she’s not so sure she wants to be rescued (“I was born perverse. Isn’t that a woman’s nature?”), and Courtney, the archetype of the predatory mannish lesbian, has her own not-quite-spoken yet quite apparent reasons for wanting to keep Hallie under her thumb.

Harvey’s “strangely passive” Dove (as he’s described in one of the extras here) is a weak and flabby spot at the centre of the film. He’s given virtually no personality beyond his adoration of Hallie, and as a result it’s difficult to root for him. It’s barely credible that he doesn’t initially recognise the brothel for what it is, or grasp either Kitty’s or Teresina’s feelings for him. Even when he gets angry (“You’re no friend of God or man, standing there hollering hate to the world,” he declares to a preacher who harangues him and Hallie, calling her “Jezebel”) it’s the kind of anger you can imagine the recipient just shrugging off.

Indeed, the men in Walk on the Wild Side are uniformly presented as subsidiary to the women. Dove works at menial tasks for Teresina, effectively accepting her charity; the thug Oliver, while certainly a stronger individual than Dove, is likewise at Courtney’s beck and call; Courtney’s husband has even lost both his legs in a decidedly unsubtle symbolic emasculation.

The female characters and performances are correspondingly dominant. Capucine as Hallie is the least convincing of the quartet—even when she’s defending her new life as a scarlet woman, recounting how her mother “wanted to taste everything… and I am my mother’s child”, she can’t quite escape a demureness which is at odds with what she’s saying— but she still displays more presence and range than Harvey does. (To be fair, the writing does him no favours. There’s really not a lot for him to work with, as he’s largely reactive to the women.)

Stanwyck’s Courtney (very different from the character in Algren’s novel) is the most memorable, and terrifying in her way, claiming she longs for pure love “without the reek of lust” while clearly not above a little lust herself. Fonda’s Kitty is the most charismatic, inevitably revealing a heart of gold beneath the brash opportunism, and Baxter’s Teresina is an interestingly unglamorous contrast to the other three, an older woman realistic about life and love.

Dmytryk does his best to bring things to life, aided by the prolific cinematographer Joseph MacDonald (whose frequently noirish contribution to Walk on the Wild Side is as fine as his work for Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets a dozen years earlier). Careful and often complex composition and blocking add much interest (see, for example, the sequence of a door, a gate, and an elaborate staircase in the scene where Dove first finds Hallie), although there are some oddly out-of-keeping soft-focus close-ups on Hallie that betray the film’s unwillingness to be quite as harshly realistic as it could be.

Elmer Bernstein’s music score, meanwhile, is most notable for its terrific Academy Award-nominated title song.

Walk on the Wild Side’s failings mostly come down to the screenplay, reputedly much reworked by many uncredited writers. Though it does manage to keep up the intrigue for quite a while, always leaving at least one unanswered question in our minds, once the direction of the drama has become obvious the film sinks into dullness. It pulls its punches on the brothel—apparently nervous of more than the slightest nod to the business that Courtney’s house is actually conducting, and reminding us that 1962 at the cinema was much more like the 1950s than the later ’60s—and while Dove’s too milquetoast to be a real hero, the bad guys are not quite menacing enough either.

“This is an ADULT PICTURE,” publicity at the time announced. “Parents should exercise discretion in permitting the immature to see it.” After that build-up, one can only imagine the disappointment of the immature if they were let in. Still, while it signally fails to satisfy as the lurid slice of seamy life it purports to be, there are impressive performances from Stanwyck, Fonda and Baxter, and Arrow Video has put together a fine set of extras for this beautifully restored rerelease.

USA | 1962 | 114 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH

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Blu-ray Special Features:

High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of a brand new 4K restoration from Sony Pictures.
• Original lossless mono audio.
• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
• Brand new commentary by critics Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan.
A wide-ranging, entertaining and informative discussion (rather than a scene-by-scene analysis) worth listening to in its entirety.
• Brand new interview with historian and critic Richard Dyer.
Split into two sections, one focusing on issues of sexuality in Walk on the Wild Side (Dyer is an authority on queer cinema), the other looking at the film’s visual qualities.
• Brand new interview with Pat Kirkham, co-author of
Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design.
Interesting background on Bass, though more clips of his long career in titling would have been very welcome.
• Archival interview with director Edward Dmytryk.
• Ggallery.
About 30 stills and posters, the latter especially worth looking at.
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow
• Illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing by critics Lee Gambin and Eloise Ross (first pressing only).

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Cast & Crew

director: Edward Dmytryk.
writers: John Fante, Edmund Morris & Ben Hecht (uncredited) (based on the novel by Nelson Algren).
starring: Laurence Harvey, Capucine, Jane Fonda, Anne Baxter & Barbara Stanwyck.