The poster for Walk Softly, Stranger (1950) tries its best to take advantage of the film’s Joseph Cotten/Valli pairing when it shouts, “The Stars of ‘THE 3RD MAN’ in a NEW exciting adventure!” It’s a clever but misleading bit of marketing, as it implies that Cotten and Valli made The Third Man (1949) first and then reunited for this film. Nothing could be further from the truth. Walk Softly, Stranger was completed in 1948 but not released until 1950, and there was one reason why: Howard Hughes. The eccentric tycoon who took over RKO Radio Pictures in 1948 was notorious for demanding that he personally screen every film and give it his own stamp of approval before allowing its release. Films often sat for months—or, as was the case with The Narrow Margin (1952) and many others, over a year—before Hughes got around to screening them. This was case whether the film was produced internally by RKO or bought from an independent production company for distribution, which is what RKO did with Stranger. Hughes was an equal-opportunity meddler.
When RKO finally released the film in 1950, Hughes and the other executives were undoubtedly hoping that the delay might actually help the film’s prospects, banking on the idea that many filmgoers would want to see another outing from the stars (sans Orson Welles) of The Third Man. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite turn out that way. The film was 1950’s biggest bomb, losing $775,000—something RKO definitely could not afford at the time. It’s a shame that it wasn’t more warmly received upon its initial release, because Walk Softly, Stranger is a quiet, melancholy noir that thrives primarily because of the excellent performances of its two leads.
The film begins with a nameless man (Joseph Cotten) pulling up outside a small, quiet Ohio town. He flips a coin, and it lands on the side that tells him this is the place for him. He takes on the identity of Chris Hale, a former resident of the town who moved away when he was a child. It’s not long before he has moved into Hale’s childhood home as a boarder and struck up a friendship with Elaine Corelli (Valli). He gets a job at the local shoe factory that’s owned by Elaine’s dad, who wants to promote him to make his daughter happy.
To say any more would be to give away some important plot details that are best left unspoiled. However, it’s clear from the outset of the film that Hale has secrets, and he’s doing his best to keep them that way. Cotten’s casting is pitch perfect, as he plays Hale with an understated, self-deprecating honesty—a contradictory quality in a gambler and a liar. Valli matches every bit of Cotten’s performance as the wheelchair-bound former debutante whose life has veered off course due to a skiing accident, making her hesitant to get close to anyone for fear of experiencing another kind of pain. As the film progresses, the growing connection between Hale and Elaine is moving precisely because of the emotional complexity that Cotten and Valli infuse into their characters’ relationship. Robert Stevenson—who also directed The Woman on Pier 13 (1949) and The Las Vegas Story (1952) for RKO—effectively utilizes the subdued performances of his leads, matching them with the deliberate pacing of the film to create a narrative that slowly works its way under the skin and into the bones. With the minor exception of the final scene, the film never veers into melodramatic territory, leaving the two pros to craft a tender back-and-forth that subtly dips and rises throughout the film.
At its heart, the film asks us to consider whether or not people can recover from the bad decisions they have made, decisions that can and will come back to haunt them later in life. Will they buckle under the weight of their past mistakes, or will they learn to grow, to expand their horizons, to embrace the frightening but hopeful possibilities that lay ahead? The ways that Hale and Elaine quietly struggle to determine the answers to these questions, as well as how those answers will impact their identities both an individuals and as a couple, provide the powerful emotional core of the film and the most appealing reason to watch and enjoy it.
Richard Jewell writes in The RKO Story that Walk Softly, Stranger “in no way re-echoed the quality of The Third Man” due to the “clichéd screenplay” that perfunctorily runs its way “through a catalogue of melodramatic plot rudiments” (253). With all due respect, I think he was being a bit harsh. While it is definitely not in the same league as The Third Man, and the plot of Walk Softly, Stranger has been done before and since, the performances and direction elevate an oft-told story to well-above average fare. If you like your noir contemplative and restrained instead of brutal and raucous, Walk Softly, Stranger is for you.