Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan.Nevertheless, Walk the Walk – a 1970 obscurity that would be reckoned a flop by any conventional film industry metric – begins right off the bat with two proud claims of possession. “Jac Zacha’s WALK THE WALK” insists the title card, a work of folk art in itself, with letters that appear painted or stenciled. This is preceded by an even more impressive painted image, a portrait of a dapper if no longer young man in thickish quasi-profile, a cigarette poised rakishly between the first two fingers of his left hand, a gold watch wrapped around his wrist. (“Don’t leave out the watch,” you can almost hear him tell the artist.) A legend identifies the legend: “AMERICA’S FEARLESS SHOWMAN – Kroger Babb.”

To make this identification, Babb’s name writes itself on the screen via animation, in proud cursive – the apparent reproduction of a flamboyant signature, like John Hancock’s on a souvenir copy of the Declaration of Independence. It’s a declaration of distinction from an independent filmmaker and exploitation innovator who made his first fortune distributing Mom and Dad, a 1945 saga of unwed motherhood that interrupts the melodrama for the show-stopping insertion of real-life birth footage – a teaser for the graphic movie content that before long would make such Babbian “sex education” fables quaint and obsolete.

If the moralizing in Mom and Dad was camouflage, the moral allegory in Walk the Walk – Babb’s final credited film – seems entirely earnest. Babb has been much researched, but writer-director-producer Jac Zacha – what a name! – remains something of a mystery, with only one other film to his credit as a director, according to the Internet Movie Database: 1969’s The Stud Farm, an “Eastman Color” production with “Full Male Nudity” (“The boys are all beauties,” raved Screw magazine).

A brief Zacha autobiography, reproduced by the blog Temple of Schlock, confirms what seems apparent from watching Walk the Walk: Zacha was no opportunist. However fashionable his movie’s hippie esthetic and druggie argot, Walk the Walk was a passion project and, more to the point, a Passion Play. It’s the tale of a good man – an ambassador of Christ, in fact, a priest – tempted by sin and Satan. Place it in the sanctuary as the most unknown and disreputable stop in a cinematic Stations of the Cross that includes work by Bresson, Scorsese and Abel Ferrara (notably, Bad Lieutenant).

Walk the Walk – the title suggests not only sincerity but pilgrimage – opens with a shot of a crucifix on a wall that is obscured when a man suddenly rises into frame, screaming. The man is Mike, played by the late Bernie Hamilton of Starsky and Hutch fame (and the only successful career actor in the cast). Mike, we soon see, is in a small room that resembles a monk’s cell; but his Bible, which he smashes against the wall in junkie agony, holds no relief: It is literally hollow, a storage space for drug paraphernalia. Soon Hamilton – as committed to Zacha’s vision as Harvey Keitel was to Ferrara’s – is writhing on the floor, literally munching the carpet and licking the wall, as if in search of splattered heroin.

Desperate for a fix, Mike flees to a swinging club, where the eminence grise is an epicene snot with an arched nostril and a fey delivery named – at least once upon a time – Big Daddy (Bert Hoffman, campy as Jonathan Harris in Lost in Space). “I have been consecrated by Beelzebub,” the man declares, wielding a black rose like a wand. “I am not called ‘Big Daddy’ any more. If you wish to refer to me... I am ‘the Unholy One.’” His hippie sidekicks? They are “the Unholies of the Unholies.”

More significant is Mike’s introduction to Judy, a blowsy woman with a blond wig, spider-leg eyelashes and (perhaps) a Southern accent. “I, too, have been dedicated and consecrated to Lucifer, Beelzebub, Satan, the devil or whatever ol’ noise you want to call him,” she says, flippantly. Learning her new friend is named “Mike,” she beams: “That’s beautiful… Michael the archangel… The cat who drove Satan out of heaven… And at last he confronts Judy – Judy, the devil’s handmaiden.”

A member of the film’s “All-Star Sunset Strip Cast,” to quote Babb’s promotional material, Judy is played by one Honor Lawrence, a somewhat burly glamazon and a possible actual ordained minister in some sort of California church of Satan. At one point, she presides over a wedding ceremony that looks like it might be real, for all its zany vibe. (Judy: “Dost thou take this broad to be thy wife?” Groom: “I can dig it.”)

Un-vain enough to remove her wig and reveal a nest of close-cropped furze, Lawrence doesn’t so much steal as wrestle much of the film from Hamilton, who disappears for long stretches (possibly because he sometimes was unavailable as the production dragged out over what appears to have been many days and many locations). In any case, the interaction between Mike and Judy is the film’s strength and distinction. Almost 50 years later, movies showcasing mixed-race male-female relationships are rare, especially when they involve middle-aged adults who are not conventionally “movie” attractive and who engage in philosophical debates, to boot. “Do you really believe in God?” Judy asks. Replies Mike, as if participating in one of Judy’s marriage ceremonies: “Yes, I do.”

Judy is attracted to Mike, but this priest is one junkie who considers sex outside of wedlock a sin. “Out of my love for my God I have learned to love myself,” he insists. Judy doesn’t dig Mike’s vow of celibacy: “I may not know everything about the laws of this dude Newton, but I do know something about the laws of nature. And baby, what you’re doing right now is against every law that nature ever wrote.”

According to his short memoir, director Zacha was – like his movie’s hero – a seminarian and a dope addict. “God is everywhere and there’s power in prayer,” he wrote, in case we needed further affirmation that Walk the Walk was “the true story of Zacha’s life” (according to Babb’s publicity notes). Of course, this is a “true story” with a black actor cast as the white director’s counterpart. That decision might have seemed strange at the time, but it now appears visionary.

In any case, the presence of Hamilton and Lawrence as leads likely limited the enthusiasm of exhibitors for what was already a generally slack “exploitation” movie, with only brief interludes of violence (a crotch-stabbing cuts to black at the moment of knifely impact) and a single fleeting instance of nudity (in a climactic chase sequence that places Mike, like Jesus, in the desert). Walk the Walk apparently earned few bookings after its 1971 debut in Norfolk, Virginia; it was fated from the start to be an essentially lost work of outsider cinema.

Walk the Walk ends with a despairing twist that excuses the narrative’s illogic and transforms one of Judy’s come-ons into a dark prophecy (“I’m the one connection that’ll wait around for you, baby,” she had promised). But though its ironies and epistemological interludes may suggest a cracked Ingmar Bergman, the spirit of Chuck Jones presides over the movie’s most unexpected and generous sequence – a sequence that recognizes Judy as a force of life, not death.

The scene takes place around a pool at night, at Judy’s home in what may be the Hollywood hills.

“You know what kind of flicks I dig the most?” asks Judy, apparently stoned. “Cartoons. They really turn me on. You ever see that one with that craaaaazy-looking coyote and that funny-looking little bird, the Road Runner? I dig them the most.”

And then Honor Lawrence waddles, flaps her hands, and goes “brrrrrpt, meep-meep, brrrrrrpt, meep-meep,” in imitation of the Road Runner – and you immediately assume this was something Honor Lawrence was likely to do whenever she was stoned.

And then Bernie Hamilton tells a joke that utilizes the term “granny dodger,” which is a “U.S. black” slang euphemism, to quote the Oxford Dictionary – and you immediately assume Bernie Hamilton and not Jac Zacha brought this anecdote to the set.

And then it becomes apparent, if it wasn’t already, that this art-exploitation-documentary-of-its-own-making-time machine of a movie really is, in certain strange and memorable ways, not like anything you’ve ever seen before. How could it be? It’s one of a kind: It’s “Jac Zacha’s Walk the Walk.”

thanks to Chris Poggiali,

John Beifuss is a longtime reporter and film critic for The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis. His work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Chicago Sun-Times, TV Guide, and elsewhere. He contributed the chapters on “Southern Horror” and “Southern Comedy” to The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. He is the author of a children’s book, Armadillo Ray (Chronicle Books). His first byline was in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and it’s been downhill ever since.