Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Another Look: WALK ON THE WILD SIDE


            In 1962, when this film came out, I was fourteen years old. I remember going to the theater to see it with my parents. That was before the Hollywood rating system but this movie was nevertheless widely advertised as containing content most suitable for adults. I don't remember exactly why I was allowed to attend, other than I generally acted in a mature, sensible way and was always treated accordingly by my parents. By then I'd proven responsible at doing a wide range of farm work with my father and sometimes for neighboring farmers (driving tractors, trucks, baling hay, milking cows, etc.) and was also a trusted babysitter for my three sisters, two of whom were still in diapers. Add to that the fact my mother was always an avid movie fan, up to and including being a regular reader of the old-fashioned movie mags like Photoplay and others. So, since Walk On The Wild Side had been getting a lot of hype (mainly for its "shocking" content and also largely due to solid ol' Hank Fonda's daughter playing what was reported to be a very racy part in only her second movie), Ma was keen to see it. Me, I was keen to go to the movies whenever I got the chance. As for Dad, I'm not sure why he allowed himself to get dragged along … he mostly held out for good ol' shoot-'em-up Westerns. (I'm just guessing, but maybe it had something to do with all that "racy" hype.)
            So anyway, we all went to see it and my recollection was that we came away neither particularly shocked nor impressed. It was okay, I remember thinking, but nothing special and not particularly titillating, even to a fourteen-year-old. Ma and Dad seemed most shocked by Barbara Stanwyck playing a lesbian. Me, I wasn't even sure what a "lesbian" was at that point and would have never even made the rather vague connection as portrayed in the film if I hadn't read about it in advance in one of Ma's movie magazines. Afterwards, the two things I remembered most about the movie were the scenes where Laurence Harvey got the snot beat out of him by some very nasty thugs, and the scenes where Jane Fonda was slinking around the "Doll House" wearing a skintight dress and smoking a cigarette in a long holder. (Hey, I might have been a "good kid", but I was in my teens, after all, and my hormones sort of forced me to take notice of such things.)
            Recently, I sat down to re-watch Walk On The Side for the first time in many years to see how it held up from a considerably more mature (well, in years, anyway) perspective.
            All and all, it's not a terrible movie. I've seen a lot better, I've sat through a helluva lot worse. By today's standards it is by no means shocking or racy. You see more graphic presentations on prime time TV any night of the week. Yet there is a certain grittiness to it, largely due to the excellent black-and-white photography and the moody, memorable song growled over the opening and closing credits by the gravel-voiced Brook Benton ("One day of praying, six nights of fun … The odds against going to Heaven, 6 to 1"). And the scene where Harvey gets beat up (which includes the involvement of a legless man who pulls himself along on roller-cart using said cart to ram against Harvey's ankles while two other thugs hold him) is still powerful. Also, Fonda still comes across as very sassy/sexy (far more so than Capucine, who is supposed to be the super-alluring focal point of everything) and as far as I'm concerned basically steals the whole show. (Spare me any anti-Fonda rants, please—I loathe most of the political stances she has taken over the years, but I grudgingly give her credit for having the courage of her convictions and  I admit to appreciating her performances in several films over the years.)
            The story is set in the early 1930s. It is based upon, but does not follow very faithfully, the Nelson Algren novel of the same name. It has to do with Dove Linkhorn (Harvey) hoboing across the country from Texas to New Orleans in search of his lost love Hallie (Capucine), an artist who has somehow ended up in a brothel (coyly called "the Dollhouse" throughout the movie) run by Jo (Stan-wyck) who gives Hallie special status and clearly wants to keep her to herself rather than making her available to the customers. Before reaching the city, Linkhorn encounters Kitty Twist (Fonda) who shows him the ropes as far as riding the rails and surviving the hobo life; but they quickly part ways when Dove catches her stealing from a café owner who has shown them some kindness. Through a newspaper ad, Dove traces Hallie to the Doll House and almost lures her away with him. But threats and physical interference from Jo's thugs get in the way. After Dove has been beaten up, Kitty—who, surprise!, has shown up again as a Doll House worker—creates a diversion that allows Hallie to get away and take the injured Dove with her. They return to the café where Dove and Kitty got solace earlier. Unfortunately, Jo and her thugs follow them there and in the struggle and shoot-out that ensues Hallie inadvertently stops a bullet and is killed. A very downbeat ending … somewhat salvaged by a tacked-on ending that shows newspaper headlines (as the closing credits roll and the Benton song plays again) heralding that the "Doll House Gang" has been convicted and brought to justice due to the testimony of "star witness" Kitty Twist.
            Critics at the time generally panned the film. The only things that seemed to get any praise were the song (Oscar-nominated); the striking, luminous-eyed black cat who roamed through murky dark alleys in accompaniment to said song during each set of credits (and promptly ran away, never to be seen again, as soon as filming was complete); and the acting of Ann Baxter.  The somewhat curious casting—Harvey (an Englishman) and Capucine (French) as a pair of Texans, and Baxter, playing a Mexican—got a lot of attention. Although Baxter, as mentioned above, drew accolades, both Harvey and Capucine got shredded. For my money, Harvey's Texas drawl (which he would use again some years later playing William Barrett Travis in John Wayne's The Alamo) was every bit as good as Baxter's Spanish. As far as Capucine … well, she spoke her lines and looked pretty good doing it; I'll leave it at that. Stanwyck chewed up the scenery with the relish of an old pro. But, like I said before, Fonda stole every shot she was in (especially when given wry lines like "I run the candy concession" when Dove encounters her in the Doll House and stupidly asks what she's doing there).
            All in all, this plays sort of like homage to old Warner Bros. movies of the 30s. Not all of them were classics, but they were mostly entertaining and at the very least worth an hour and a half of your time. I'd put this film toward the top of that category.

Persevere — WD

2 comments:

Bill Crider said...

My future wife and I saw this in the theater in '62, and we both still talk about it now and then. So it must have had some effect on us. You can't go wrong with Fonda in a role like that when she was young. I agree that she stole the film.

wayne d. dundee said...

Bill - Thanks for the comment. You may have summed up in a few concise sentances what I was trying to say in the rambling paragraphs above - if the movie sticks in our minds and is a discussion point after all this time, then I guess it's impact was reasonably positive.