Thursday, June 4, 2009
Walk Softly, Stranger - 1950
“Walk Softly, Stranger” (1950) re-teams Joseph Cotten and Valli from “The Third Man” (1949) in a film that is not quite Noir and not quite romance, but which is carried by the dependable understated and nuanced playing of both leads.
Drifter Cotten wanders into an anywhere-in-America factory town and for a minute we might wonder if this is going to be a Van Heflin in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) sort of adventure. Not quite. We don’t have the snap and sizzle of the true Noir of “Ivers”, but what we do have is a male lead more intriguingly ambiguous. We know Van Heflin is a sharp character right off the bat. But we don’t really know what Joseph Cotten is. Jack Paar, incidentally, has a small role as a co-worker.
Cotten picks out Spring Byington’s house seemingly according to some plan, and tells her a tale of it’s being his boyhood home. A lonely widow whose only son was killed in The War, she trustingly rents him a room in her house. Soon his comfortable teasing of her evolves into a warm almost mother-son relationship, but the thought that she might not be safe with him still lingers.
He accosts the elegant Valli, the daughter of the town’s wealthy manufacturer on the terrace of a country club party with the self-assuredness again of somebody following a carefully plotted plan. He spins a story of having a crush on her when she was a girl and he was the paperboy. We see he has designs on her, but the glimmer of surprise in his expression when he notices she is in a wheelchair makes us wonder if his plans are changing, or merely gelling.
Mr. Cotten is a gambler and a thief, hiding out from the mob. When his weasel pal played to a self-interested, nervous crescendo by the sinister Paul Stewart shows up with the even badder guys on his tail, the jig is up.
There are some pensive scenes with the lovely Valli as a depressed and bitter invalid after a wild debutante life of cocktails and skiing accidents, and how she becomes drawn to Cotten’s ingratiating bravado about the wheelchair. They fall in love, though we are more certain of her attachment than his, so steady is his reserved guise as a man with many angles, many hands to play, and more than one name.
The ending is improbable, but inevitable. You can’t leave a girl in a wheelchair, already sadder but wiser, alone without a date on New Year’s Eve. So, when the cuffs are on him at last, she declares will wait for him. It’s hard to say whether this cozy moment is better or worse than her just coldly walking past him into the distance and the end credits like she did in “The Third Man.” There was something awfully right about that, in an agonizing sort of way. But then, “The Third Man” really was Noir, and “Walk Softly, Stranger” is gray, groping in the dark.