Sunday, July 12, 2009

Walk on the Wild Side

Walk on the Wild Side (1962, dir. Edward Dmytryk) is a mannered, dated film about New Orleans in the 1930s. Laurence Harvey plays a young Texas farmer named Dove Linkhorn (the last name bears what must be a deliberate resemblance to “Lincoln”) whose father dies and who sets out on the road to New Orleans, where he means to find his long lost love, Hallie Gerard (Capuchine). On the way, he meets a young, legally under-age woman named Kittie Twist (Jane Fonda). She has run away from an orphanage and is headed towards New Orleans “to have fun.” When she throws herself at Linkhorn, he rebuffs her, and she worms out of him the story of his love for Hallie Gerard. I never regarded Laurence Harvey as much of an actor, and although he isn’t much of one in this film, he at least handless his role well, once you adjust to his effort to speak with what is supposed to be a Texas/Southern accent.

Dove Linkhorn, as we are reminded throughout the film, is an upright lad—morally straight, virtuous, and deeply in love with Hallie. She, it turns out, after an unsuccessful career as an artist in New York, and after waiting for Linkhorn to come find her (he didn’t accompany her to New York because he felt obligated to take care of his sick father on the farm back in Texas), has been lured to a life of high-class prostitution in New Orleans by a woman named Jo, played by Barbara Stanwyck. (Exactly how this happens is never made clear, other than the fact that the only painting Hallie ever sells is one that she sold to Jo). Jo and her henchman keep a house full of attractive young women in what amounts to a state of imprisonment. There is a hint that Jo is attracted sexually to Hallie.

The plot of this film is predictable. A young woman loses her way, falls into prostitution, enjoys the benefits the money and attention can bring, and then is found by the young man she once loved. She resists him, tells him to leave, but ultimately is won over by his moral rectitude and his passion. When she tries to run away with him, Jo’s henchmen viciously beat Dove. Ultimately, in a fight between Dove and one of the henchmen, a gun is fired, and Hallie takes the bullet and dies.

When Dove first arrives in New Orleans, he is befriended by a Hispanic woman named Teresina Vidaverri (Anne Baxter) who runs a gas station and café. Kitty tries to rob her, and when Dove returns the necklace she has stolen, Teresina recognizes that he is a good man and offers him a job until he can get on his feet. She also helps him place an ad in the personals section of the newspaper. Later she professes her love for Dove, but he loves Hallie.

Hallie vacillates too much in this film between self-flagellating and corrupt acceptance of her life in Jo’s house and her love for Dove. She looks constantly miserable and morose when she is not looking corrupted. Oddly, she continues her work as an artist in the same bedroom where, we assume, she sleeps with johns for money.

The film is entirely Hollywood. It’s a Hollywood version of New Orleans. A Hollywood notion of what a prostitute’s life must be like, of what a house of high-class prostitution may be. There are three types of prostitutes in this film—those who are too stupid to know what they are doing, those who are corrupt and enjoy their work, and those who, like Hallie, walk around in a constant state of self-recrimination and guilt over the fallen life they live. The film offers many scenes of the streets in the French Quarter--the standard images every New Orleans film shows. The building in which the prostitutes live, with the central courtyard, resembles the one we see in the film Band of Angels. The music, composed by Elmer Bernstein, is a Hollywood attempt at a New Orleans jazz-type score. Nothing in the film is convincing or realistic. Several songs are featured—we see a band of African American musicians playing, and we hear someone singing, but we never see the actual singer.

Fonda is good in her role. Although she receives equal billing with Capuchine, she in fact has a relatively small part.

This is one of those films that, when it ends, you find yourself asking exactly what the point of it all was.

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