Previous: The Novel and the Indefinite Article
The Hayes Code was fading but not forgotten in 1962, and Hollywood dropped more than the indefinite article from Nelson Algren's controversial 1956 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side. It starts with down-and-out Depression-era protagonist Dove Linkhorn as an adult on the road, where he meets petty criminal Kitty Twist and restaurateur Teresina Vidaverri. Both women have been revised. Teresina's character has been rewritten significantly from the tragic figure in novel-Dove's past. Kitty gets played by a decidedly adult Jane Fonda. They share a few adventures before parting company. Dove searches for his lost love, Hallie, whom he knows lives somewhere in New Orleans. With help from Teresina, he finds her, living in the Doll House, a brothel run by a masculine-acting madame, Jo (Barbara Stanwyck). The film's Hallie is more refined than her counterpart in the novel and her multiracial ancestry gets erased entirely.
You also could watch a fair way in the film before receiving confirmation that Hallie in fact has become a prostitute. She initially plays as a starving artist renting a room in the same building as a brothel. The film also hints heavily that she once had a relationship with Jo, coded here, in that mid-twentieth century plausibly deniable way, as a lesbian.
A plot had been constructed from characters and events plucked from the novel's meandering center, staged to recall Tennessee Williams. Despite the homelessness, whoring, and violence, the script and director Edward Dmytryk soften matters quite a bit. The film does, however, provide some excellent noir-influenced shots, demonstrating the power of grayscale for telling certain kinds of stories. We're in a world that eschews colours.
The actors are generally fine, though Laurence Harvey plays probably the most cleaned-up hobo in history and a man quite incapable of the more savage moments of his novel counterpart. Capucine received the key role of Hallie. Her mediocre performance received criticism, allegedly even from Harvey. She would do better in future films, most notably in the comic genre.
The movie makes much of Kitty Twist's status as jailbait. She's young enough to be turned over to juvenile services and a man can be blackmailed for involvement with her. Jane Fonda was in her mid-twenties. Her supposed age-- essential to a now crucial plot point-- requires that the audience suspend significant disbelief.
The ending, though hardly happy, gets rewritten to something less bleak.
Probably the most memorable thing about Walk on the Wild Side are the opening and closing credits, designed by husband-and-wife team Saul Bass and Elaine Makatura Bass. A black cat slinks through seedy settings. The final credits even create an epilogue as the puss pads over a discarded newspaper revealing the final fate of several characters and assuring us that crime does not pay! The prowling tom moves to a song, a jazz/gospel fusion sort of thing, written by Elmer Bernstein and Mack Davis.
You walk on the wild side, you're walkin' with Satan
Away from the Promised Land
One day of prayin' and six nights of fun
The odds against going to heaven, six-to-one.
Often, when a title recurs in various genres, it's the pop-music incarnation that wins the popularity contest. At this point, more people have heard Connie Francis sing "Where the Boys Are" than read the novel or watched the movie. It's entirely possible that more people alive now have covered "Unchained Melody" than watched the 1955 prison movie Unchained whence it comes. So is the case with A Walk on the Wild Side / Walk on the Wild Side.
Elmer Bernstein and Mack David wrote the film's title song. It was covered a number of times. Its lyrics were pious enough that, despite its origins, it was co-opted by gospel singers.
The other song by that name appeals to a different crowd.
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She said "hey babe, take a walk on the wild side."
Lou Reed, a fan of Algren's work, considered writing a musical based on A Walk on the Wild Side. It never saw fruition. He revised one of its notional numbers into a tribute to the real-life characters and caricatures he encountered at The Factory in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "Walk on the Wild Side" became his signature song, a top ten hit despite containing references to oral sex, drugs, and sundry other topics that often discouraged widespread airplay in 1972.
It has been covered many times, including a version by Edie Brickell. It would be one of her only pop hits after her wildly successful debut, Shooting Rubber Bands at the Stars, and her marriage to Paul Simon.
Guy Trebay, writing four decades later in The New York Times, called the song a tribute to "a New York so long forgotten as to seem imaginary."
The novel and movie remain, also recollections of worlds that no longer exist and an author whose fame with mainstream readers proved fleeting.