Walk on the Wild Side (1962): Dmytryk’s Bordello Melodrama, Starring Stanwyck, Capucine, Jane Fonda, Anne Baxter, Laurence Harvey (LGBTQ, Lesbian)

Sharply uneven, Walk on the Wild Side, directed by Edward Dmytryk and scripted by John Fante and Edmund Morris, is a pseudo-Tennessee Williams-like movie.

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

Theatrical release poster inspired by Saul Bass opening title sequence

As such, it is an intense, lurid melodrama, centering on a Texas drifter named Dove (Laurence Harvey at his most appealing) and the various women in his life.

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, 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–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 a good-hearted, Mexican caf owner (played by Anne Baxter, who’s miscast) who falls in love with Dove. Too bad that the movie is mostly set indoors, for 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 and protect him. It’s only a matter of time before all the characters meet, and in a fatal shootout, 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 her earliest pictures.  She 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 They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in 1969.

As noted, Baxter is miscast as the earthly woman, though to her credits, 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. Fellini would know how to use Capucine 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. It’s creepy, original, uncompromised image that only highlights the flaws of the narrative, though Dmytryk’s direction is proficient.

The movie was not well received by critics or viewers (it was a commercial flop).

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times described it as a “lurid, tawdry, and sleazy melodrama.”

While it passed its censors, it was an adult film noir with explicit overtones and subject matter. It walks its audience through the lives and relationships between adults (mostly women) engaged in the “business” of commercial prostitution at a stylish New Orleans brothel. The “boss” is Madam Jo (Stanwyck), who combines toughness with a motherly

Laurence Harvey as Dove Linkhorn
Capucine as Hallie Gerard
Jane Fonda as Kitty “Twist” Tristram
Anne Baxter as Teresina Vidaverri
Barbara Stanwyck as Jo Courtney
Joanna Moore as Miss Precious
Richard Rust as Oliver
Karl Swenson as Schmidt
Don “Red” Barry as Dockery
Juanita Moore as Mama
John Anderson as Preacher
Ken Lynch as Frank Bonito
Todd Anderson as Lt. Omar Stroud

Directed by Edward Dmytryk
Written by John Fante, Edmund Morris, Ben Hecht (uncredited), based on A Walk on the Wild Side 1956 novel
by Nelson Algren
Produced by Charles K. Feldman
Cinematography Joseph MacDonald
Edited by Harry Gerstad
Music by Elmer Bernstein

Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Release date: February 21, 1962

Running time: 114 minutes