Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)

Walk Softly Stranger (1950) is a romantic drama with leanings into the film noir style. Perhaps also it is a film noir tale, with leanings towards the medium of romantic drama.

Either way, these are some quite unbearble tensions to place beside each other. Can love succeed against noir? Can noir defeat love and make a man abandon a loving partner, when offered a hat, cigarette, pistol and a package of money?

The idea in Walk Softly, Stranger may be to combine the two. The film dips into film noir territory in moments then swoops into romantic scenery on balconies, around extravagant Christmas trees and on the verandas of the rich.  The evil of the story is carried entirely by Paul Stewart who finds everything amusing and irritating, has a short temper and can't really follow the plan like the classic film noir weaker-willed heist partner who won't stick to da plan.

Into domesticity, comes a stranger. The stranger's arrival in town is a fairly realistic event, although the story and set up and the mis en scene is fantasy. Unusually for a film production of the 1940s and 1950s, there is a part of the action which takes place, before the films title cards are presented.

Welcome to Ashton -- Joseph Cotten in
Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)

Entertainingly, the stranger to town played by Joseph Cotten arrives with a brochure for the settlement in question in his hand, and on his car seat.

There could be no better symbol for the social transition from the 1940s into the 1950s than a brochure. The future is a brochure, and it is a fantasy. That life in the 1950s or beyond would resemble what is portrayed in brochures, is a marvellous fantasy in and of itself. 

Careful courting in Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)

On the brochure are written, presumably, the details of the fraud about to be perpetrated. As Jospeh Cotten's good-guy film noir con-man gambler and robber character looks down on the town he is about to stealth-invade, we see him view a factory.

Soon the camera will be inside that factory, and not just on the factory floor, but in the offices and even the boardrooms of that company. This is the bridge between the 1940s and the 1950s in film noir. And it's fascinating that in Walk Softly, Stranger (1950) Joseph Cotten holds in this moment of approach a whole lot of crazy ambiguity.

There are good guys and there are bad guys. Maybe worse though is the bad guy who pretends to be a good guy. Worse still if this good guy looks like a good guy like Jospeh Cotten looked like a good guy.

Perhaps in the same way, the same can be said of William Holden. William Holden does the out and out bad guy in The Dark Past (1948) but never did full ambiguity. So in terms of looking like a good guy and acting like a good guy and really being a bad guy, Walk Softly, Stranger might be real bad-ass noir.

Might it be? The titles of film noir movies ask questions, every time. Who is the stranger being advised to walk softly? Alida Valli who plays Elaine Corelli is a stranger to the man she meets in Chris Hale is as much a stranger to his real self, the man he is pretending to be, herself, her past, and her memory of the man she thinks she loves.

Why is the central character anyway, in a  film called Walk Softly, Stranger, even in a wheelchair?

The working title for the film was Weep No More, intended for Cary Grant to star under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock. The film lost an estimated $775,000, making it one of RKO's biggest flops of the year. If something has gone badly wrong in production, maybe we should not be watching this film at all. Does Walk Softly, Stranger continue to lose money?

Walk Softly Stranger seems to be of two minds, two scripts in fact. The film noir that awaits around the corner from the soppy story of reform through love is super-tough and pulls all the correct dialogue cues:

Bowen: Why don't you sit down?

Chris Hale: I wouldn't sit on your death bed.


Bowen: I like to keep my neck in shape; I stick it out so often.


Whitey Lake: I'm not like you. I have blood in my veins.

"All my life I’ve taken things without paying for them.  This time I picked up a cold deck."

Ashton society pages in
Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)

Joseph Cotten sums himself up: I was a lot of things before I met you: a gambler, a card shark, a dice hustler and a phoney.

Walk Softly, Stranger was filmed in 1948 but not released until 1950, after Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli had both starred in the much higher profile film The Third Man (1949), which had been released the previous year to great acclaim. 

Howard Hughes, who owned RKO Studios at the time and had shelved the film when it was first completed, decided to try to cash in on its buzz. For noir fans the trope most used here is probably that of the former hood trying to go straight in a new town, combined with the adjacent trope of — one last job.

However, this is in fact a film of the 1940s then, which explains some of the rougher film noir tropes working abrasively with the modern love story of a man being redeemed by the love of a disabled woman, in itself not entirely comfortable.

Ever since Charlie Chaplin fell in love with a blind woman in City Lights, the trope of disabled love has 

In Lucky Star (1929) Tim and Mary have a Meet Cute before World War I, but their romance doesn't really get underway until Tim comes home from the war—in a wheelchair.

In Night Song, Dan is a Blind Musician who Cathy falls for and wants him to start composing again.

In Stella Maris (1925) Stella is in love with John. She's been bedridden and paralyzed her entire life. Halfway through the film she is able to walk thanks to surgery.

Hero Chris Hale gets caught between his dark past and his luminous present, which is visible and alive in Elaine’s lovely smile when she sees poor children singing Christmas carols. Not for the hoods, that. 

Chris cannot go straight and flies for the weekend to an unnamed city and hooks up with petty criminal Whitey Lake (played Paul Stewart), who calls him “Steve.” 

The two rob the gambling house owner Bowen (played by Howard Petrie) of $200,000, and go their separate ways knowing that the crime will never be reported. Chris returns to small-town Ashton and pursues Elaine, and the two eventually fall in love. 

But as happens with that old film noir friend, The Past, Whitey suddenly shows up, broke and scared, and says that Bowen is chasing him. Chris should have known better than to get found, but that is everything unravelled right there. He asks old Mrs. Brentman his scene-stealing landlady to give Whitey a room, but the hood tears up the room thinking the loot might be hidden there.

Hoods in the night - - film noir in Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)
Joseph Cotten and Paul Stewart

By the third act Cotten is a reformed man seeking redemption for his past sins, but this may be because he is about to be caught. Are criminals ever marked for redemption when it comes to crimes they have got away with?  He confesses to Elaine about the robbery and his past life of crime and then with some movie-wrapping action he sets out to deal with the vengeful Bowen and his goons. The result is fantasy violence and some spook-haunted film noir style paranoid stalking within suburbia and around and about the town and the house..

Paul Stewart as the hood with no heart in
Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)

Joseph Cotten is the modest everyman who is indeed at heart bad. Redemption in film noir usually comes about through death, although prison might also be acceptable — love is the vehicle here and the basic decency of Joseph Cotten helps make it believable. The sincere affection he has for his landlady is surely a sign of goodness, here in the heart of none other than an armed robber.

Sharking on the quiet — John McIntire and Joseph Cotten in
Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)

The bad men however are badder yet, and they are not nice to the landlady. The darkness of themes are matched from time to time in the lighting, and the forlorn looks of Alida Valli are great, and perfectly evocative of that goodness we are looking for. It's black and white, in black and white.

Hard card sharkin' in Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)

It does have the effect of giving the bad guys real menace when they appear on the streets of good old Ashton — a town large enough apparently to have its own society pages. 

Spills and thrills in Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)

The complex climax sees a car smash through the Ashton signage, in a strange criminal deformation of normality, leading to hospital for some and jail for others, and for some like our hero — both. Presumably the real crims die and go to the morgue, we don't know. The morality of noir yet stands, and it seems like it might be good advice to walk softly. Our hero does his best, but he can't walk soft enough — and he can't be a stranger either. He is found quite easily by his accomplice and then the mobsters they had stolen from.

The idea of the woman's picture is never far away and neither is that of the noir. Of all the two-minded can't decide what I am movies of film noir, Walk Softly, Stranger — with its weird title too — has to be the most split up within itself and undecided. 

Paranoia in suburbia - - they really after you this time
Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)

Walk Softly, Stranger is a film noir merged with romantic drama from 1950 and directed by Robert Stevenson. 

It is apparently also a lost cause, like its director. As per Joel W. Finler’s The Hollywood Story, during the period 1950-52 Robert Stevenson’s last four films for RKO — Walk Softly Stranger, I Married a Communist, The Woman on Pier 13, My Forbidden Past, and Las Vegas Story – lost the studio a total of US$2,725,000. 

Fatal car smash in Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)

A quote which inspired, in this strange title. 

“Walk softly. Walk softly, stranger. The land on which you stand is Holy ground … a place of unspoiled beauty, colored by The Hand of God. And you who stand upon this land will someday too remember sun-washed sands and quiet days, and moments crystallized in time. Walk softly, stranger, for you stand on Holy ground.” 

Harry Emmett Finch, in a late 1940s tribute to the French Frigate Shoals in north-western Hawaii. The idea is that Joseph Cotten's character must walk softly over the bruised heart of massively affluent heiress Alida Valli. 

Walk Softly, Stranger (1950) Wikipedia

William Holden

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