April 22, 2011

Queer Review: A Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

A Walk on the Wild Side
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Writers: John Fante, Edmund Morris, and Ben Hecht. Based on the novel by Nelson Algren.
Cast: Laurence Harvey, Capucine, Jane Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Baxter

A sudsy melodrama about lost souls from the seedier parts of this world, A Walk on the Wild Side attempts to tell a tale of sin, longing, and regret. However, the melodramatic elements are overdone and the watering down of the racier elements of the novel in order to conform to the Hays Code cause the production to collapse faster than levees before hurricane Katrina.

Set during the depression in the 1930's, the story opens with Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) on his way to New Orleans to search for his lost love Hallie Gerard (Capucine). At the beginning Dove meets Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda) a rough around the edges drifter who teaches him how to ride the trains and other survival skills. However, they soon end up parting ways when Dove catches Kitty stealing from cafe owner Teresina Vidaverri (Anne Baxter). Now trusting Dove as he returned her jewlery, Teresina offers to help Dove in his quest. Dove soon finds Hallie, who is now working at a brothel called The Dollhouse run by Jo Courtney (Barbara Stanwyck). The problem though is that Jo is the possessive type and will not let her most popular prostitute leave easily.

The Queering
The most interesting element in Walk on the Wild Side is the coded lesbian relationship between Jo and Hallie. It is never explicitly stated but there are several scenes that suggest the reason Jo will not let Hallie be with Dove is not the money Hallie makes for The Dollhouse, but because Jo's interest turned to Hallie after her husband was disabled in an accident. Jo's husband is clearly eager to see Hallie exit and in one scene Jo asks Hallie not to continue to service The Dollhouse clientile.

However, Walk on the Wild Side was made at the wrong time. The novel by Nelson Algrenthat the film was based upon appears, based upon the research I did, to be a lot grittier than the film and more character driven. The film itself suffers too much from over simplification and bending over backwards to satisfy the Hays Code. The fact is that the Hays Code required criminals and those who engaged in sexual perversion to be punished either by going to jail ending up dead. Considering this, the death of a key character that causes the film to end on a sour note should not come as a surprise to anyone.

I believe that if Walk on the Wild Side had been made several years later, that is after the Hays Code had been abolished, there might have been a powerful film made from this material. As it is, between the cheesy dialog and watered down dramatic elements it's difficult to find anything to admire. Most of the acting is not terrible but not great either. Although, I must admit Barbara Stanwyck's performance as Jo is brilliantly fierce, while managing to subtle suggest the increasing fear and jealousy her character feels towards Dove. This is a woman I would not want to cross.

All things considered, there's not a lot here to recommend. Only those completists interested in seeing any film with queer themes, no matter how coded or potentially offensive, will have any reason take a Walk on the Wild Side

The Rating

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