Walk on the Wild Side: Dmytryk’s Bordello Melodrama, Starring Stanwyck, 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, an intense, lurid melodrama centering on a Texas drifter named Dove (Laurence Harvey at his most appealing) and the 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 lesbiansand 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 the earliest picture, who looks fetching and projects saucy shrillness, disclosing promise of the great talent she would become in a matter of years; turning point in Fonda’s career was “They Shoot Horses, Don’ 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.