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DVD SAVANT

Walk on the Wild Side


Walk on the Wild Side
Columbia TriStar
1962 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 114 min. / Street Date February 10, 2004 / 24.96
Starring Laurence Harvey, Capucine, Jane Fonda, Anne Baxter, Barbara Stanwyck, Joanna Cook Moore, Richard Rust, Karl Swenson, Don 'Red' Barry, Juanita Moore, John Anderson
Cinematography Joseph MacDonald
Production Designer Richard Sylbert
Costume Designer Charles Le Maire
Film Editor Harry W. Gerstad
Original Music Elmer Bernstein, Mack David
Written by John Fante, Edmund Morris from a novel by Nelson Algren
Produced by Charles K. Feldman
Directed by Edward Dmytryk

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Walk on the Wild Side is a misconceived 'adult-themed' movie that displays everything wrong with the Hollywood system, circa 1962, that the MPAA's rating system would alleviate six years later. Not only that, it's not well directed either, so there's not much to remark on except the cumulative awkwardness of the material, compounded by the filmmakers' bad choices.

The picture does have entertainment value; this strange assortment of stars are going to be interesting whether or not their work adds up to a coherent drama. Besides the amusement of watching this un-shocking 'shocking' story play out, Wild does have two fringe benefits: A great title design by Saul Bass and a dynamite musical score by Elmer Bernstein.

Synopsis:

'The 1930s.' Farmer Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) hitchhikes from Texas to New Orleans in search a girl he couldn't keep several years before, the beautiful Hallie Gerard (Capucine). Along the way he meets thieving tramp Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda) and widow Teresina Vidaverri, the earthy owner of a roadside cafe (Anne Baxter). Dove eventually finds Hallie only to discover that she's the star boarder in a brothel called The Doll House run by the tyrannical Jo Courtney (Barbara Stanwyck). Jo has staked a claim of her own on Hallie and has plenty of henchmen to foil Dove's attempts to take her away.

This is a story about sinful people in the New Orleans Red Light district. Save for one Mexican-American diner hostess, the the female characters are prostitutes, a tramp and one dominating lesbian madame. The hero is a humble but God-fearing Texas innocent trying to save his dream girl from a sad life.

Mainstream American movies openly discouraged the subject of prostitution for thirty years, which naturally resulted in a lot of vocational excuses and evasions. Wild West prostitutes became dance-hall girls, hookers in bars were hostesses and streetwalkers were often given some kind of visible trade as camoflage. Fritz Lang's Manhunt sticks a sewing machine in London prostitute Joan Bennett's room and calls her a seamstress. This practice cleaned up the movies but distorted reality, often with the undesired side effect of glamorizing women who live by 'depending on the kindness of strangers.'

In 1962 we finally come to Walk on the Wild Side. Houses of prostitution had finally become grudgingly acceptable as film subjects (see Elmer Gantry, 1960), but only if nothing that usually transpires in a brothel was depicted on screen. So The Doll House is a weird New Orleans fantasy club where the girls sit around in nightgowns playing cards and talking to each other. Nobody talks about sex. Men come in but only once do we see anyone heading upstairs, and even then there's an abrupt fade. The clients never touch the women, at least not amorously.

In this sanitized brothel fantasy, we're frequently reminded that the top-dame played by Capucine is really a sculptress. She's the personal pet of the lesbian club owner played by Barbara Stanwyck, but everything about their relationship is kept even more of a secret. So we have an activity that cannot speak its name, portrayed in a business establishment where no business is transacted. Lots of films made after the 1968 ratings overhaul are set in brothels (The Learning Tree, Pretty Baby, The Lady in Red). Even when exaggerated or glamorized, they at least made basic sense.

Walk on the Wild Side takes a lot of interestingly trashy material and makes it unrecognizable as human behavior. Barbara Stanwyck's Jo holds Hallie in half-voluntary confinement, apparently for undefined sexual purposes. Jo is apparently a monster as perverse as Ona Munson's Mother Gin Sling in Von Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture, a much earlier fantasy brothel film. She hates men and is revulsed by sex, but makes her living servicing rich men while oppressing weak women. Her henchman Oliver (Richard Rust) whips the feebleminded Miss Precious, one of those addled Blanch DuBois types (Joanna Moore of Touch of Evil and Nevada Smith). And (mild spoiler) the pathetic legless snitch (Karl Swenson of Major Dundee) who carries messages around The Doll House turns out to be Jo's husband, demoted to worthless cripple because of an accident.

The lack of a convincing depression-era period doesn't help matters. Nobody in the film has a 1930s hairstyle, and the Le Maire gowns worn by Capucine look 100% sixties. Capucine herself has a pronounced La Dolce Vita contemporary appearance. She's far too classy-looking for The Doll House. Texas hick Dove is played by the very good actor Laurence Harvey, who is once again terribly miscast; his Texas accent is so forced, it often sounds as if someone else dubbed his whole performance. Barbara Stanwyck is efficiently impersonal - all of her scenes involve threats or near-threats, so we don't get any understanding of her character.

Walk on the Wild Side was reportedly a troubled production. According to the IMDB, Blake Edwards was hired to direct 'additional scenes,' indicating perhaps that things weren't working. Once an expressive and intensely creative director in shows like Murder, My Sweet and the recently rediscovered Christ in Concrete, Edward Dmytryk's work here is impersonal, uninspired, and sometimes incredibly sloppy. One scene gives Hallie and Dove a romantic afternoon in the park. She sits above him and they talk. In Hallie's close-up, his hand reaches up with a sprig of flowers, and she caresses it lightly. In repeated cutaways to Dove, both his hands are visible, folded over his chest. Most continuity errors are negligible in their effect, but this goof makes it looks as though Harvey has three arms.

The cast list in the IMDB also names actors and roles that no longer seem to be in the movie. There are two women who might be Hallie's sisters (?) and an 'auctioneer' played by Paul Maxey that indicate cut material. Perhaps there was once a different opening back in Dove's hometown, where he watches while his father's farm is auctioned off. In the completed film, we know Dove is penniless, but we aren't told what happened to the family homestead.

Most of the acting is accomplished but the performances don't mesh and the atmosphere doesn't gel. Both Stanwyck and Anne Baxter tend to overpower the other actors. Baxter's accented Mexican woman with a heart of gold appeals in vain to Dove, and seems to be in a different picture entirely. Jane Fonda gives her trampy hobo Kitty a lot of energy but is never convincing. After two reels she disappears suddenly, and then she shows up to throw a monkey wrench into Dove's plans. Kitty just doesn't seem gullible enough to fall into her place in Jo's crooked scheme. Laurence Harvey is sincere but generates no heat with Capucine. The prospect of him getting serious with Baxter or Fonda doesn't appeal either.

Walk on the Wild Side starts with a bang that the rest of the film never matches. Elmer Bernstein's provides a great main theme and Saul Bass illustrates it with a terrific title sequence of a black cat stalking proudly through a maze of pipes and slatted fences. The slow-motion photography is so sleek and smooth that the superimposed titles almost look painted onto the cat; the feline pace syncopates perfectly with the driving momentum of the music.

When the theme is used as jazzy source music played in The Doll House we see musicians, but no singer. Brook Benton is heard singing the tune with them, but when we cut to the band, there's no vocalist!

Among the various squeaky-clean denizens of the brothel are Juanita Moore as the house maid, and familiar Columbia contractee Todd Armstrong (Jason and the Argonauts) as an eager Marine given the brush-off by Hallie.


Columbia TriStar's DVD of Walk on the Wild Side has a transfer with a rough beginning that soon improves. The enhanced 1:85 image starts with some dirt, broken frames, and a moment where the film lifts slightly in the gate. Unfortunately this happens in the bravura title sequence, but shortly thereafter the quality improves and stays that way. The audio track is clear and strong.

Four promo trailers for other Columbia discs are the only extra. The sparse cover design uses an arresting pose of Jane Fonda with the cat eyes from the titles, and the meaningless tag line, 'Love is best kept a secret.' The liner text emphasizes Fonda's presence and simply identifies the transfer as 'widescreen' instead of pointing out the 16:9 enhancement. Paranoid Savant interprets this as a marketing attempt to pretend that 16:9 is not an important feature - perhaps paving the way for pan-scan only transfers? I hope not.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Walk on the Wild Side rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Very Good, except the first two minutes
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none - trailers for other films
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 2, 2004


Footnote:

 1 1. There may be something to that. Twice in the earlier parts of the story, characters are seen mouthing words we don't hear, and we can't tell if dialogue lines were accidentally left out of the DVD master, or if the original editors were trying to rescue confusing scenes and hoping we wouldn't notice.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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