Film Reviews

Walk on the Wild Side (1962) – Blu-ray Review

At the time of its release, legendary American critic Bosley Crowther described the 1962 film Walk on the Wild Side as a “lurid, tawdry, and sleazy melodrama”, which to me makes it a must-see, regardless of what meaning Mr Crowther may have inferred in his colourful portrait. And indeed, it’s a fine example of late noir packaged in an equally fine new Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

Directed by Edward Dmytryk (who had previously directed another acclaimed American film noir picture, 1947’s Crossfire) and based on a novel by Nelson Algren, Walk on the Wild Side follows the desperate journey of Dove (Laurence Harvey) as he travels to New Orleans to find his long lost love Hallie (Capucine). When he does, he discovers she’s working in a brothel under the harsh management of Jo (Barbara Stanwyck), who values Hallie most out of all of her girls. Of course, Dove wants to drag her out of there and make an honest woman of her – but does she want to be that person?

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If you’ve seen even a few film noir pictures, you’ll know they never have a happy ending, and Walk on the Wild Side is no exception. But the twists and turns taken to get there are both thrilling and emotionally resonant, with an exploration of Dove’s masculinity in a reverse Cinderella role. As we’re introduced to him as just another drifter in Texas, he quickly befriends Kitty (Jane Fonda) who becomes his travelling companion, but despite her sexual advances, he tells her – bluntly – that Hallie is the only one for him. The classic example of waiting for your sweetheart, only that’s usually assigned to young girls.

Interestingly, when Dove shows up in Hallie’s boudoir, there’s a sense of disinterest on her part, with her not only wanting him to leave but also blaming him for not being there when she needed him. There’s a backstory inferred here by Dmytryk and the writers – John Fante and Edmund Morris are credited, with many rumoured uncredited scribes including Ben Hecht of Spellbound (1945) fame – that had Hallie leaving Dove, who couldn’t go because of his ailing father, and this puts the responsibility on Dove. So he leaves, with the promise of coming back in a day or so.

But Hallie’s biggest issue is with Jo, which is the film’s central relationship, and why the film has been called a queer classic. There is a clear mutual affection that goes beyond Madam and prostitute, and both characters are at a point in their lives where male companionship is seemingly not required or desired; Hallie doesn’t have Dove, and Jo only has her husband, who is a paraplegic who she has no use for as anything but a heavy. Jo openly disparages men in terms of love and sex, and actually says “what do men know about love?” – it’s laid on a bit thick, but you get the idea.

The other issue is that Laurence Harvey’s Dove feels like he’s been stripped of his masculinity by being without Hallie, and while he shows resilience or stubbornness, depending on your point of view, he doesn’t feel like much of a presence. So when Hallie tells him to go away, there’s an idea percolating that she means it. It’s only the plot that makes her go back to him, which further angers Jo.

In fact, the men as presented in the film are not ideal. Aside from Dove and Jo’s husband, you have the clients who are either dreadful boorish individuals or conniving corrupt types, not to mention Oliver, Jo’s main henchman who only seems to get turned on when he’s beating the crap out of Dove. Stanwyck in particular dominates proceedings and portraying Jo as someone not just protecting her business and its assets, but definitely harbouring something else for Hallie. This also makes her fairly terrifying, so when she gets involved with trying to get rid of Dove, she also feels like a convincing gangster. Jane Fonda, who was only in her second acting role, brings real grit to Kitty, someone who has clearly been on her own from an early age and has learned to use every part of her to survive.

The film is shot beautifully by Joseph MacDonald, who had previously worked for the likes of John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and Sam Fuller, and he makes great use of the ingenious set of the Doll House brothel, which has the business end on the upper floors with a spiral staircase down to a bar. Elmer Bernstein’s brassy jazz score perfectly captures the tension and sleaze, coming from that wonderful period where he was writing jazz music for films like The Man With The Golden Arm (1955) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and then there’s another classic Saul and Elaine Bass opening sequence, one of their most famous. A black cat slinks through pipes and wire fences and beside the sidewalk lines, at least until it meets a white cat, which it instantly fights.

Arrow’s new restoration comes from a 4K 35mm scan framing at 1.85:1 which was provided by Sony and it looks beautiful, deftly capturing MacDonald’s strong shadows and depth of field. The soundtrack is a reproduction of the original mono track and is forceful without a lack of clarity, with Bernstein’s score sounding absolutely stunning. A wonderful presentation.

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The disc comes with several worthy extras, with the main attraction an audio commentary from critics Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, which is an informative look at not only the production but the themes of the film. Two interviews with critic Richard Dyer cover similar ground, but are a lot more rambly, while there’s a featurette on Saul and Elaine Bass’ title sequence with Pat Kirkham, author of Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design with Jennifer Bass, that also covers some of his career as well as Walk on the Wild Side. There’s also an archival interview with Dmytryk covering his career, and a stills gallery, but my main bugbear is that none of the special features includes subtitles for the hard of hearing, which really is unacceptable. The Blu-ray also comes with a booklet that was not provided for review.

Walk on the Wild Side is a wonderful slice of southern melodrama and Arrow’s presentation is wonderful. The restoration is beautiful, and while the extras aren’t plentiful, the thoughtful audio commentary is a bonus. Recommended.

Walk on the Wild Side is out on Blu-ray on 6th September from Arrow Video.

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