“What’s the worst that can happen? You die.”
The early 1960s were uncertain years for a Hollywood still stuck with one foot in the studio Golden Era and the other treading tentatively into a more permissive environment in terms of the type of themes that were acceptable on the screen. In 1961, Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour was filmed for the second time, on this occasion by William Wyler, with much more explicit reference to its lesbian theme than had previously been possible. Following quickly on the heels of that film was Walk on the Wild Side, produced by Charles Feldman for Columbia. It was adapted from a novel by Nelson Algren, but as was common, little of the actual novel made it into the completed film.
The story concerns a young Texan, Dove Linkhorn. Upon the death of his father, Dove leaves home to seek out his lost love, Hallie Gerard, whom he believes to be in New Orleans. As he makes his way via hitchhiking and riding the rails, Dove falls in with another wandering soul, the young Kitty Twist. The two eventually fall out over Dove’s interest in Teresina Vidaverri, the proprietress of a diner on the outskirts of New Orleans. Through an ad he places in the personals column of a local newspaper, Dove eventually learns that Hallie works at a popular bordello called the Doll House, run by Jo Courtney. Dove attempts to get Hallie to quit the bordello and come away with him, but she resists, partly because she is unsure about her feelings for Dove, and also because she is ashamed of her recent past. Meanwhile, Jo becomes aware of Dove’s intentions, and for reasons of her own, moves to ensure that Hallie will not leave. Kitty Twist, who has by now found her way to the Doll House where she has become the latest plaything, becomes deeply involved in the tale’s resolution.
It’s easy to see how Walk on the Wild Side could be a guilty pleasure with its luridly melodramatic presentation and its raft of broadly-drawn characters. The initial impression is of greater depth than actually exists, for the film does draw you into its tawdry world and then drag you along briskly. Once you start to reflect on what you’ve seen, however, you realize that it offers very little beyond vague suggestion, and taken as a whole, the characters defy credibility.
The cast attracted to the film is impressive on paper, but only a few of them come off well. Laurence Harvey manages to convince us that he’s a Texan, although he seems like the poor man’s Montgomery Clift in the part. Jane Fonda is a little over the top as Kitty, but she too is convincing on the whole. The role of Jo is a good one for Barbara Stanwyck, but her part doesn’t have enough screen time for her to really become energized in it. Anne Baxter is completely miscast as Teresina. Capucine increasingly looks like she’s going to fall asleep on the screen, so languorous is her Hallie portrayal. In supporting roles, Don “Red” Barry (yes, he of Red Ryder fame) as the bordello bartender, and Richard Rust as Jo’s “muscle,” are both effective.
The direction is in the hands of the talented Edward Dmytryk, who orchestrates things effectively, if not with much apparent enthusiasm. The whole endeavor is underscored by evocative music by Elmer Bernstein, and there is a fine title song (“Walk on the Wild Side” — nominated for an Academy Award) supporting a good title sequence involving a black cat.
Columbia presents the black and white film on DVD with a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. After noticeable speckling and debris in the opening sequences, the image settles into a sharp, nicely detailed presentation. Blacks are deep and whites are clean. Edge effects are not an issue. The mono sound is quite adequate for the dialogue-driven film, although there is some age-related hiss evident on occasion. The only supplements are trailers for three other Columbia releases.