During the Great Depression, Dove (Laurence Harvey) and Kitty (Jane Fonda) meet on the road in Texas as each travels separately to New Orleans. They decide to travel together, hitchhiking and hopping freight trains. Dove is hoping to find his lost love Hallie (Capucine), and is not interested when Kitty comes on to him sexually.
After Kitty steals from the New Orleans-area café where she and Dove stop for a meal, he leaves her and makes things right with the owner, Teresina (Anne Baxter). She gives Dove a job at the café and a place to stay while he searches for Hallie. He finds her working at the Doll House, an upscale French Quarter bordello, where Jo (Barbara Stanwyck) is the madam.
Later it is revealed that, after Jo's husband lost his legs in an accident, she lost interest in him. A lesbian relationship is suggested between Jo and Hallie, who is supported by the owner in pursuing her interest in sculpting on the side. But Hallie still works for Jo as a prostitute like the other women. Hallie is unhappy with her life at Jo's, but does not want to give up her comforts to risk married life with Dove.
Meanwhile, Kitty starts working at the bordello after Jo bails her out of jail, where she had been confined for vagrancy. Seeing that Kitty and Dove appear to know each other, Jo questions Kitty about her past, and learns that she traveled with Dove from Texas to Louisiana. Jo threatens Dove with arrest for transporting the underage Kitty across state lines for immoral purposes and for statutory rape, unless he leaves New Orleans without Hallie. As Dove leaves the bordello, the bouncer, another employee, and Jo's husband beat him viciously. Kitty watches from upstairs.
Kitty helps Dove return to the café, where Teresina cares for him. The younger woman goes back to the bordello to get Hallie, helping her reach the café. When Hallie can't be found at the bordello, Kitty is suspected and put under pressure; frightened, she brings Jo and her three henchmen to the café. During the ensuing struggle among the men, Hallie is shot and killed by a stray bullet. The film closes by showing a front-page newspaper story reporting that Kitty's testimony sent Jo and several others from the bordello to prison.Laurence Harvey as Dove LinkhornCapucine as Hallie GerardJane Fonda as Kitty TwistAnne Baxter as TeresinaBarbara Stanwyck as Jo CourtneyJoanna Moore as Miss PreciousRichard Rust as OliverKarl Swenson as SchmidtDon "Red" Barry as DockeryJuanita Moore as MamaJohn Anderson as PreacherKen Lynch as Frank BonitoTodd Anderson as Lt. Omar Stroud
Tensions among the actors and director caused problems on the set. After Harvey told Capucine she couldn't act, she sulked for a week. His opinion was seconded by actress Joan Perry, widow of studio head Harry Cohn. But the film's producer Charles Feldman continued to promote Capucine. This and other incidents, including Jane Fonda's insistence on changing dialogue, eventually resulted in the director resigning. The film's schedule slipped, causing difficulties for co-star Anne Baxter, six months pregnant when the production wrapped. Baxter described these events in her autobiography, Intermission (1976).
The opening and closing sequences, directed by Saul Bass, have become a famous element of the film. In the beginning, a black tom cat, shown at shoulder height, prowls an urban landscape and picks a fight with a white cat, as credits are shown. At the end of the film, the same black tom cat is featured walking over the headline of a newspaper, which has a front-page story reporting that the people who ran the bordello were arrested and sentenced to many years in prison.
Awards and honors
The film's title song, "Walk on the Wild Side," was nominated for an Academy Award in the category Best Music, Original Song. Elmer Bernstein, composer, and Mack David, lyricist shared the nomination. It has become a gospel music standard.
This is not to be confused with Lou Reed's song of the same title from his 1972 album Transformer, which referred to his days at artist Andy Warhol's The Factory and figures of that era.
2005: AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: