[23 February 2004]
Ernest Hemmingway once remarked that the best thing a writer could do, as far as the movies were concerned, was drive to California, toss a script over the border, grab the cash, and split as quickly as possible. In the bad old days, the studio system did not assume that the Book Reading and Movie Going Worlds had any sort of Venn intersection, and treated the novels they purchased accordingly.
Case in point: Nelson Algren, a once celebrated author whose books did not fare well on the silver screen. He was kicked off the set of the film adaptation of his 1950 novel, The Man With the Golden Arm, after butting heads with director Otto Preminger, a man with a reputation for crushing souls (for example, Dorothy Dandridge). The resulting movie, while a classic in its own right, bore little resemblance to the novel that inspired it. Algren swore he would never deal with “Hollywood” again.
He was happy, however, to take the money and run, as evidenced by the 1962 adaptation of his novel, Walk on the Wild Side, just released on DVD for the first time. There are worse adaptations, to be sure, and the book’s digressive, symbolic prose style is highly resistant to dramatization. Still, the film does little to evoke his skills.
The book takes place during the 1930s, following Dove Linkhorn, a small-town Texas boy, in his Candide-like journey from the Dust Bowl to the seedy underworld of New Orleans. Like all of Algren’s work, it focuses on the lowest of the low, but resists “poor but clean” clichés. A product of the Depression, Algren echoes Steinbeck’s class-conscious anger, though far less didactically.
The script by John Fante and Edwin Morris (assisted by an uncredited Ben Hecht) whittles the novel’s rambling, nearly plot-free narrative down to a fine point: Dove (Laurence Harvey) is transformed into a man on a mission, traveling to New Orleans to be reunited with his one true love, an artist named Hallie(Capucine). On the way, he meets scheming teenage vagabond Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda), who helps him hitch a ride to the Big Easy. Meanwhile, Hallie languishes in a classy bordello called the Doll House, run by the iron-willed, steel-jawed madame Jo (Barbara Stanwyck).
The lovers are eventually reunited, though Hallie breaks Dove’s heart when he learns what she does for her money. He vows to take her away from this life, but the vengeful Doll House management is loath to let Hallie go, and employs Kitty in a plot to blackmail Dove into leaving her forever. The film ends on a dour note, atypical for its era, but it also reassures the viewer that all the guilty were appropriately punished.
Edward Dmytryk makes fine use of the French Quarter’s Byzantine ironwork, its shadowy foyers, and the Escher-like twists of its courtyards and balconies. This is unfortunately marred on the DVD by a sloppy digital transfer full of static and sound dropouts (there are few extras, beyond foreign language subtitles). However, the film itself has more salient problems. Little of Algren’s grit and grime is evident in the finished product. The opulent Doll House features a full jazz band and well-appointed bar to cater to its customers, and its well-dressed employees’ biggest problem seems to be fighting off boredom. Contrast that with the cathouses in Algren’s novel, dives with savage pimps, shamed fetishists, and sad girls who dream of better lives more out of habit than earnest desire.
Similarly troubling is what Fante and Morris’s script do to the novel’s moral outlook. Algren does not condemn his whores and hustlers—he saves his contempt for the city fathers who urged poor folks to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, while at the same time profiting from their misery. The film, on the other hand, is replete with the muddled double standards of Eisenhower-era sexual mores. No longer an innocent, Dove is here a crusader who eventually decides to “forgive” his woman for what she’s done. He spouts Biblical platitudes about faithfulness and love, despite an implied romance with Terasina (Ann Baxter), a Mexican café owner who lets Dove stay with her while he searches for Hallie. Baxter’s performance teeters on the brink of stereotype, typical of those from a time when it was “acceptable” for white actors to portray characters of other races.
In the hands of Capucine (now best remembered as Mrs. Clouseau in the first Pink Panther movie, but once considered an exotic beauty of the Sophia Loren sort), Hallie has an air of Gallic cool about her, and looks she couldn’t care less whether she ever escapes her “life of sin”. There isn’t the slightest bit of chemistry between her and Harvey, who displays little of the feverish intensity he brought to The Manchurian Candidate. For spark, you have to turn to the strangely homoerotic battle of wits between Capucine and Stanwyck, who displays the calculating drive common to that trope from the Celluloid Closet of old: the Implied Lesbian Villainess.
Few of the performances register at all, save that of Jane Fonda, seen here in only her third film role. In a film ostensibly about the “wild side”, Kitty is the only character who displays the slightest trace of animal lust. The way Kitty tries to get into Dove’s pants, then betrays him when she can’t, is the closest that Wild Side comes to approximating Algren’s vision, a world where people bite and claw their way not to the top, but simply to keep from being on the bottom.
Faithfully translating Wild Side for the screen would have been a tall order in 1962, when the restrictive Production Code was still in full effect. However, it is less the book’s explicit depictions of poverty and whorehouses that is missed, and more its view of the people who inhabit this world. It changes a novel that studiously avoids moralizing into a trite screed against “fallen women”. This wouldn’t be so galling if the film didn’t clearly want it both ways: to entice the viewer with promises of a glimpse into the brothel life, while at the same time wagging its finger at something it never even dares to show.
And so, in its own perverse fashion, the film of Wild Side illustrates Algren’s description of Depression-era New Orleans, one that could just as easily apply to the Hollywood that cheated and embittered him: “They were all trying to make an honest buck, in a crooked sort of way.”