Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

11 September 2006

Walk on the Wild Side

So I've been told by my writing teacher that "the blog is a good idea, but..." and she rolled her eyes a little bit into the back of her head and said, "you really need to keep your critical writing muscle strong." Now, I'm not quite sure what she means, although I know for a fact I shouldn't have used italics just then. It's frowned upon in academic circles, doncha know: we're supposed to create emphasis with the words we use and not fall back on the crutch of italics. Anyway, I thought I would take some time out and try to actually write a film review. It's the closest thing I can probably come to critical writing at the present time, so, here goes.

1962 saw a lot of great movies. Lawrence of Arabia won the Best Picture Oscar that year, but 1962 also boasts Long Day's Journey into Night, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Music Man, The Manchurian Candidate, Days of Wine and Roses, Sweet Bird of Youth, and one of the masterpieces of cinematic camp, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Tragically forgotten among these films (most of them gems) is a story of doomed romance and a delicious exercise in high camp that ought not to be ignored by film lovers: Edward Dmytryk's Walk on the Wild Side.
Walk on the Wild Side follows a young, green drifter named Dove Linkhorn (Manchurian's Laurence Harvey) with a pocket full of cash as he hitches his way through Texas on his way to New Orleans. Dove has his sights set on the love of his childhood, Hallie (French beauty Capucine). Dove is aided early on by a young drifter named Kitty (Jane Fonda) and café-owner Teresina (Anne Baxter). Kitty helps Dove into town and Teresina sets Dove up with a steady job and a lot of home-cooked meals. Both women immediately fall for our young hero, but he only has eyes for Hallie and refuses to rest until he finds her.
We find Hallie before Dove does. She is working as a high-class prostitute in a place called the Doll House, wasting away her talents (she's a sculptress) and spending most of her time pouting. The madam of the Doll House, Jo (Barbara Stanwyck), is clearly in love with Hallie and will do anything to keep her favorite trick in her employ. From here the conflict centers around the question of whether or not Hallie and Dove will run off together or whether Jo will prevent them somehow with the aid of her hired muscle.
Saul Bass designed the titles for Walk on the Wild Side and they beautifully set the film up to be exactly what it turns out to be: very high camp. As the titles roll at the top of the film, we follow a black cat wandering through a cement wilderness, finally coming upon a white cat, fighting it and claiming its territory. This actually might be the problem with the film. The cat in the titles is clearly Kitty, the film's best-drawn role, but the film itself doesn't follow the story of Kitty. Fonda is superb in the role and the character has all of the best lines, but the film isn't really about her at all.
Dmytryk sets up a story about a man with a fire in his belly and a woman on his mind. Neither of these two (star-crossed) lovebirds is represented by the cat in the title sequence, and our drifter's story is overwhelmed by the female presence on the screen. The only real rival for the ideal woman of the film, Hallie, is another woman: Jo, the madam of the brothel and the villain of the piece. Perhaps, though, it is Laurence Harvey who is to blame for this overpowering. He is not a strong enough performer to share the screen with the likes of Anne Baxter, Jane Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck. He seems to dominate the action very well when he is paired with Capucine, but when sharing screentime with one of the greats, Harvey's Dove looks like exactly that.
All of this feminine energy leads the film directly toward the neighborhood of camp. Eventually, the catfight in the titles must be played out on screen. The callgirls have a brawl in the saloon and the women say things like "he only ever thought of you; he never would've touched me." The film's lesbian character is worthy of note as a kind of milestone in film. Lesbian characters had appeared before on screen (The Children's Hour comes to mind) and would again (two years later in The Night of the Iguana), but Stanwyck's Jo is a hard, sad, difficult woman in love with a heartless, heterosexual woman and she doesn't have a chance. It's an old-world, campy performance, but one that feels possible and real. What else would a lesbian in the 1930's do?
Of course, the real revelation in the film is Jane Fonda as Kitty. The character's arc is wide and she has the chance to play both the scared, desperate child and the scary realist. It doesn't hurt that she looks stunning at twenty-four. But she plays Kitty with a fearlessness not to be expected from an actress with as little experience as she had. She would play a similar desperate type several years later in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, but it's clear even with this 1962 film why this woman's career took off. She looks like she plans on conquering the world.

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