Director: Edward Dmytryk
Writers: John Fante, Edmund Morris (script) Nelson Algren (novel)
Starring: Laurence Harvey, Jane Fonda, Anne Baxter,Barbara Stanwyck
Duration: 114 mins
BBFC Certification: 15
With a cast that includes Jane Fonda, Laurence Harvey, Anne Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck, a screenplay based on a best selling novel, a director famous for a string of noir classics, as well as playing host to one of Saul Bass’ best title sequences, it is surprising that Walk on the Wild Side is not better known. Yet for some reason, this early Sixties slice of Southern Gothic has been relatively forgotten among film fans as the years have progressed. Arrow Video have decided to rectify this situation by releasing the film in a sparking new Blu Ray edition, struck from a new 4K restoration. For fans of Southern Gothic and melodrama, is Walk on the Wild Side now destined to become a rediscovered classic, or is there a reason why the film has been all but forgotten over the past several decades?
Based on a novel by Nelson Algren, Walk on the Wild Side follows the exploits of the fantastically named Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) during depression era America. Setting out from Texas in order to find his former girlfriend Hallie (Capucine) who now works in a New Orleans Bordello, he encounters along the way the free spirited Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda) as well as diner and gas station owner Teresina (Anne Baxter). Both fall for Dove, but he has his eyes set on Hallie alone, who is trapped under the yolk of Madam Jo (Barbara Stanwyck) and her vicious enforcer Oliver (Richard Rust).
Made in the early Sixties, Walk on the Wild Side suffered, as so many films did, under the puritanical Hayes Production Code, meaning that much of the lewd and sleazy content of the novel was stripped out of movie by the film’s four (!) screenwriters (two of whom went uncredited). Yet if you are unfamiliar with Nelson Algren’s work or the source novel itself (and I’m presuming, nowadays, that means most people) you won’t feel that anything significant is missing from Walk on the Wild Side’s cinematic adaptation. Despite having to adhere to the moral straitjacket that the Hayes Code insisted upon, the film still feels dark and tense, with a subdued undercurrent of sexual tension and repression.
Perhaps the lack of sleaze can also be attributed to the sensibilities of director Edward Dmytryk. Famed for a number of classic Noirs from the Forties (including Crossfire and Murder My Sweet) which became rather infamous for their subversive qualities, Dmytryk, by this point in his career, was keen to show a more respectful side to his work. Yet Nourish elements still creep into the film, from sharp Chiaroscuro lighting to the overall sense of pessimism and fatality. Apart from a repeated crane shot that follows characters up a staircase (Dmytryk uses this several times!) he takes a step back for most of the film, letting the actors dominate the screen rather than technical flourishes.
Dmytryk was wise to do this, as Walk on the Wild Side is dominated by its actors and performances, rather than cinematic flair or storytelling brilliance. Despite having a male lead, the film really belongs to its female characters, ensuring that it is as much a melodrama as it is a dark Southern Noir. Anne Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck provide predictably brilliant performances. Baxter has the least to work with but does the best with what she is given but it is Stanwyck who makes the more lasting impression as the lesbian owner of the Bordello. Cold and impassive, yet still exhibiting a degree of vulnerability, it is a memorable late career cinematic turn for the Forties star before she found a purple patch in the land of TV.
Yet the standout female actor in Walk on the Wild Side is Jane Fonda. Despite this being only her second film credit, she dominates the screen whenever she appears. Bold, funny, beautiful, charismatic and unpredictable, she takes her Father’s heroic image and adds a twist of darkness and moral ambiguity. As seemingly wild and assertive on the set as her actual character (Fonda even brought her own personal director with her, much to Dmytryk’s understandable annoyance) it is no doubt a star making turn. Without Fonda, Walk on the Wild Side would be a far duller affair.
Because, unfortunately, quite a lot of the film is rather dull. Some of this can be attributed to the two leads. Both Harvey and the model turned actress Capucine simply do not have great chemistry together, nor do they provide much in the way of gripping or interesting performances (although, granted, I was impressed by the English Havey’s Texan accent). Whenever they are together, you find yourself desperate for either Baxter, Stanwyck or Fonda to appear in order to add some spark and life to proceedings.
Yet you can’t blame Harvey and Capucine alone. The plot itself, after an engrossing opening twenty minutes, slowly grinds to a sluggish pace, as the focus switches from Dove and Kitty Twist to Dove getting back in touch with his old flame. The central relationship and dilemma feels forced and strained, with the two leads not doing much to encourage sympathy, or indeed even much interest, in their plight. While the supporting characters always ensure Walk on the Wild Side is watchable, there is no escaping the languid pace that plagues its middle section.
Dmytryk doesn’t help things here. He shoots (and scores) the love scenes in a very dated fashion, to the point where the film’s central relationship feels like a Forties melodrama trapped in a time warp. With its mixture of Forties and Fifties stars, caught alongside exciting new up and comers from the Sixtes, Walk on the Wild Side can sometimes come across as a movie trapped between two time periods, neither exhibiting the classic romance or style of the former era, nor the true progressive elements that made movies of the Sixties so refreshing and exciting.
Despite this rather dated theatricality, Walk on the Wild Side still ends successfully, if rather suddenly and predictably. It would be tempting to label the film as a second rate Tennessee Williams knock off, but that would be doing it a disservice. While it may be slow in places, it is worth sticking with, as it ultimately resolves into a throughly enjoyable melodrama, carried to occasionally great heights by a stand out performance from Jane Fonda. In this respect, Walk on the Wild Side should certainly be better remembered than it currently is…hopefully something that this new Blu Ray edition from Arrow will hopefully go some way towards rectifying.
Walk on the Wild Side is being released by Arrow Video. The film is presented via a new 4K restoration from Columbia Pictures. The picture quality looks great throughout – very crisp, clear and detailed with lovely inky blacks and no compression issues that I could see. The original mono audio is equally well presented. Fans of the film should be very pleased with how Walk on the Wild Side looks and sounds on this new Blu Ray. Extras are as follows:
- Brand new commentary by critics Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan
- Brand new interview with historian and critic Richard Dyer
- Brand new interview with Pat Kirkham, co-author of Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design
- Archival interview with director Edward Dmytryk
- Stills Gallery
Audio Commentary: The ever reliable Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan enthusiastically talk us through Walk on the Wild Side. They discuss the key differences between the film and the book and go into great detail about the film’s female characters and its place within melodrama. As big fans and defenders of the film, this is an invaluable listen that sheds loads of light not just on the film’s themes and characters, but also offers some fascinating behind the scenes trivia as well.
Interviews with Richard Dryer: There are in fact two interviews with critic Richard Dryer on the disc (although Arrow confusingly offer the same information on the menu screen for the both interviews, even though they cover different topics). In the first interview, Dryer offers a more generalised overview and critique of the film, while in the second, shorter interview, he discusses the look of Walk on the Wild Side. Equally as informative and interesting as the commentary, these are a great watch.
Saul Bass: In this sixteen minute interview, Bass’ biographer offers some brief background info on the legendary title designer, then goes into more detail about the title sequence Bass designed for Walk on the Wild Side. We even get to see some original storyboards, which is fascinating.
Archival interview with director Edward Dmytryk: Recorded at the BFI in the early Seventies, Edward Dmytryk discusses his films and career, fielding questions from both the interviewer as well as frequent questions from the audience. This will be an essential listen for fans of the director, but be warned, he doesn’t talk about Walk on the Wild Side at all. At just over an hour long, this is perhaps best appreciated once you have seen more of the director’s work.