Walk on the Wild Side (1962): Gay Text/Subtext–Stanwyck as Butch Lesbian Madam (LGBTQ, Lesbian)

Sharply uneven, Walk on the Wild Side, directed by Edward Dmytryk from a scrip by John Fante and Edmund Morris, is a pseudo-Tennessee Williams-like movie, an intense, lurid melodrama centering on a Texas drifter, Dove (Laurence Harvey at his most appealing), and the various women in his life.

Walk on the Wild Side
Walk on the Wild Side poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster inspired by Saul Bass’s opening title sequence

 

Like a Tennessee Williams play-film, say, The Fugitive Kind (1961), Walk on the Wild Side mostly takes place in New Orleans, where half a dozen desperate characters search for love and fulfillment.

Not surprisingly, and also like Williams’ best plays, the movie favors women and that they are played by thespians like Jane Fonda, Anne Baxter, Capucine, and Barbara Stanwyck elevates the melodrama and captures our attention.

Over the years, the movie has acquired a name and a small following due to the fact that Stanwyck’s character, a bordello madame named Jo Courtenay, is credited with being one of Hollywood’s first overt lesbians on screen, and a butch lesbian at that!

The first reel is dominated by Dove and Kitty (Jane Fonda), a fellow drifter, who joins him in looking for his old flame, Hallie (Capucine), an artist who unbeknownst to him is now making a living as a hooker in Jo’s brothel, where she resists her boss’ come-ons.

In the second reel, Fonda all but disappears, and we get to know the good-hearted Mexican cafe owner (played by Anne Baxter, who’s miscast) who falls in love with Dove.

The movie is mostly set indoors, and the black-and white cinematography captures the moody ambience of New Orleans, greatly assisted by Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score.

When Dove finally meets Hallie, the fallen woman tries to conceal her past in order to protect him. It’s only a matter of time before all the characters meet, and in a fatal climax, Hallie, just before reforming and redeeming herself, gets shot and dies in Dove’s arms.

At the time, the critics related to the movie strictly in thematic terms, dwelling on the gross violations of Fante and Morris’s script of the source material, a novel by Nelson Alpern that’s considered to be more coherent and captivating (I haven’t read the book).

Yet there’s much to praise about the picture, beginning with the turn of Jane Fonda, in one of the earliest picture, who looks fetching and projects saucy shrillness, disclosing promise of the great talent she would become in a matter of years; the turning point in Fonda’s career would be seeveral years later, in “They Shoot Horses, Don’ They” in 1969.

As noted, Baxter is miscast as the earthly woman, though to her credit, the part is poorly written. However, it’s a pleasure to see Stanwyck harsh-as-nails lesbian in control, and also to behold Capucine’s chiseled face and natural elegance, which were made for the movies, even if her acting is icy cold.  Italian director Federico Fellini would know how to use Capucine better in the 1970 “Satyricon.”

Best of all is the opening and closing credit sequence, designed by maestro Saul Bass, in which a black cat just struts along, gets into a fight with a white cat, then continues to strut.  This creepy, original, uncompromised image only highlights the flaws of the narrative, though Dmytryk’s direction is proficient.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Song: Walk on the Wild Side, music by Elmer Bernstein, lyrics by Mack David

Oscar Context:

The Best Song winner was the title song from “Days of Wine and Roses,” by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer.

Credits:

Directed by Edward Dmytryk
Produced by Charles K. Feldman
Written by John Fante, Edmund Morris, Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Music by Elmer Bernstein

Cinematography Joseph MacDonald
Edited by Harry Gerstad
Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Release date

February 21, 1962

Running time
114 minutes