Pussy Galore

03.26.12

Edward Dmytryk, Walk on the Wild Side, 1962, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 114 minutes. Left: Dove Linkhorn and Hallie Gerard (Laurence Harvey and Capucine). Right: Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda).


EDWARD DMYTRYK’S spectacularly lurid melodrama centering around a New Orleans cathouse begins, appropriately enough, with a sleek black feline on the prowl, slinking in step to Elmer Bernstein’s jazz score as the Saul Bass–designed titles list the star-glutted cast. Very loosely based on Nelson Algren’s 1956 novel of the same name, Walk on the Wild Side, set in the early 1930s, features one actress on the rise—Jane Fonda, in her second movie, plays juvie nympho Kitty Twist (the name continuing the cat fancy)—and a legend near the end of her film career. Fifty-four at the time of Walk on the Wild Side’s release in 1962, Barbara Stanwyck, as Jo, the dykey madam of the Doll House, would appear in only two more movies afterward (Roustabout and The Night Walker, both from 1964), though she stayed active on the small screen well into her seventies.

The other performers, enjoying disparate levels of celebrity in the early ’60s, tackle their respective lingual challenges in Walk on the Wild Side with varying degrees of proficiency. Euro-suave Laurence Harvey stumbles with his Lone Star drawl as Texan farmer Dove; lily-white Anne Baxter, with a jet-black fall and Spanish accent, utters a passable “Vaya con Dios” as the café owner Teresina. And mononymed French model/actress Capucine, as Hallie, the Doll House’s main attraction, wearily speaks in the idioms of the melancholic Continental sophisticate inexplicably turned doxy: “I’m a sculptress. Or rather, I used to be before I fell down the well.”

As sticky, damp, and feverish as its Big Easy setting, the plot of Walk on the Wild Side is set in motion by the woman Dove masochistically pursues—Hallie—and those he rejects. Hitchhiking from his home of Arroyo, Texas, where he spent an unforgettable summer with the tragic beauty three years earlier, to New Orleans, where he hopes to ask Hallie to marry him (her letters didn’t specify her new profession), Dove meets Kitty, a teenage runaway from an orphanage in Kentucky. The minor (Fonda was twenty-three during shooting) puts the moves on the one-woman man, who rebuffs her—as Dove will later turn down big-hearted martyr Teresina’s offer: “I love enough for two.” He eventually finds his inamorata in the French Quarter, though it takes him a while to figure out what else Hallie does in her room in the Creole town house on Chartres Street besides dabble in the beaux arts. Dove is also unaware that he has a rival: manipulative lez Jo, who’s brainwashed Hallie into sapphic Stockholm syndrome—and whose “unnatural” leanings have something to do with a legless man on the Doll House payroll, scooting himself around three inches above ground level.

Beyond its role as a fascinating case study of waxing and waning stardom, Walk on the Wild Side was, as Vito Russo points out in The Celluloid Closet (1981), one of three films with homosexual themes released in the first half of 1962, along with The Children’s Hour and Advise & Consent. “Jo’s acceptance of her own lesbianism is part of her villainy,” Russo writes. And a large part of this perverse film’s appeal.

Melissa Anderson

Walk on the Wild Side screens April 1 at BAMcinématek as part of its “New Orleans on Film” series (March 28–April 1 and 8).