Wild in the Country Review
With a movie career that is remembered as trashy and typified by such titles as Girls! Girls! Girls! and Paradise - Hawaiian Style, it is easy to forget that Elvis Presley starred in a number of good films, particularly in its early stages. Jailhouse Rock and King Creole still stand up as diverting entertainments, and his (almost) non-singing performance in the Don Siegel Western Flaming Star deserves a bigger reputation, as does the film itself. His follow-up to this effort, 1961’s Wild in the Country, perhaps comes closest to Flaming Star in terms of quality and whilst not perfect, it proves a fascinating curiosity.
On the surface this is just another overwrought, if conventional, melodrama. Presley plays country boy Glen, a juvenile delinquent who is given one last chance by a parole hearing. He arrives in a new town and is given a new job along with regular visits to a psychiatrist (small town melodrama mainstay Hope Lange), all of which results in romantic entanglements between his middle class girlfriend Mille Jenkins, boss’ daughter and single mother Tuesday Weld and the older woman Lange who is unwilling to commit. Moreover, they get so complicated that the locals get excited and the film climaxes with a dose of courtroom drama.
Of course the key figure in American melodrama at the time was the great Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind, All That Heavens Allows) and although Wild in the Country cannot match his pedigree, it does have a number of intriguing names behind the camera. The writer was the famed leftist playwright Clifford Odets and - despite being based on a novel J.R. Salamanca - there are echoes of his stage success Golden Boy (later filmed by Rouben Mamoulian with William Holden in the lead role). Helming the film was Philip Dunne, a minor directing figure who made the then-controversial, now-forgotten teenage pregnancy drama Blue Denim with Shane’s Brandon de Wilde, but a major writer having penned How Green Way My Valley and The Robe whilst under contract at Fox and later in his career speeches for a certain John F. Kennedy.
Whilst Dunne’s direction here no more than proficient, he does at least refrain from softening up Odets’ script. Aside from odd little details such as naming the teen’s small town hangout ‘Hi-Tension Grove’, it would appear that the writer is attempting a US relocation of the Angry Young Men genre currently popular on the other side of the pond (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Billy Liar, et al), but also cross-fertilizing it with the juvenile delinquency film had become a drive-in mainstay (even Edward D. Wood Jr. had gotten in on the act) and thus producing an odd hybrid. Moreover, by making Presley’s character something of literary prodigy he is able to liberally sprinkle the dialogue which choice bon mots (at one point the King accuses Lange of “counting every flea on me”) which heighten the Southern Gothic mood. Also interesting is the manner in which Odets manages to smuggle the Presley numbers; this is after all a melodrama (and a would-be serious one were it not so overwrought), not a musical, and the incongruity of the musical interludes is incongruous to say the least.
Indeed, it’s odd to see Elvis appearing in this kind of picture even though he will be the reason why most people have seen it and why they will continue to do so. This isn’t meant as a criticism - certainly, the performance is one of his very few that command the attention - though it is just as easy to imagine the film without him and with a Montgomery Clift or Paul Newman in his place. If we can remove the various mythologies that surround Presley and assess him as simply an actor then Wild in the Country does have the failing of a number of juvenile delinquency pictures insofar as, at the age 26, he is far too old for the role, just as Russ Tamblyn was when he made High School Confidential or John Cassavetes at the time of making Crime in the Streets. Weld on the other hand, 18 during the production, is just right for her part as well as being undoubtedly excellent - the film’s true standout.
Which emphasises the fact that Wild in the Country does have a number of highlights. It is, as said, a genuine curiosity (it is also well known as the film that Paul Schrader first saw when he rebelled against his Calvinistic upbringing), though one destined for a cult audience rather than attaining any kind of classic status. Moreover, there’s the added bonus of seeing Presley in a worthy role, plus the Odets connection which should further influence the curiosity seekers. Admittedly it doesn’t reward its viewers in the conventional sense, but those looking for something a little left-of-centre are likely to be repaid in some interesting ways.
Originally released as part of Fox’s Elvis Presley boxed set alongside Love Me Tender and Flaming Star, Wild in the Country now finds itself as an individual release though the disc is identical to its previous incarnation. As such the original Cinemascope ratio of 2.35:1 is adhered to (anamorphically, of course) as is the original four-channel surround sound. Both come across as still effective to this day, though there are some slight signs of age. The Technicolor is beginning to fade a little (though this does have the side effect of making the film seem more naturalistic) and there is some evident grain and occasional edge enhancement. That said, the image is by no means unwatchable and likely to satisfy the average buyer. As for extras these are disappointingly limited to theatrical trailers for the film plus the other two above Presley titles.