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Walk Softly, Stranger

Posted by martinteller on November 21, 2012

“All my life I’ve taken things without paying for them.  This time I picked up a cold deck.  Not that it matters.”
“It matters to me.”
“You’ll change.”
“I’ll never change.”

Steve (Joseph Cotten) is a gambler, a hustler, a card cheat.  He’s got one last big score lined up before getting out of “the life” for good: knocking over a gambling joint with his buddy Whitey (Paul Stewart).  They pull off the caper and Steve settles in a small town as “Chris Hale”.  He takes a room with a kindly widow (Spring Byington).  He gets a job at the town’s main industry, a shoe factory.  And he starts wooing the factory owner’s daughter, Elaine (Alida Valli).  Elaine is beautiful, but she was crippled in a skiing accident and remains isolated and depressed.  She resists Chris’s attention at first, but eventually the two fall in love.  Things are going well for Steve/Chris, and he seems content to be living the honest life.  And then Whitey rolls into town.

Reuniting Cotten and Valli is an attempt to recapture that Third Man magic, but the story is more Out of the Past.  The inability to escape your fate is a common noir theme.  And, well, this movie isn’t doing anything that special with it.  The plot is fairly predictable… although I’d hoped for a more fatalistic ending.  The one thing storywise that I found intriguing was the possibility that “Chris Hale” really was his true identity and he really was returning to the town of his youth.  This point gets resolved later in the film (I won’t reveal which way it falls) but it was interesting that it was ambiguous for so long.

If the noir-ness of the narrative isn’t especially compelling, however, at least it succeeds on the romance front.  Cotten and Valli really shine together, their experience on Third Man obviously having paid off.  The relationship feels genuine (by Hollywood standards) and is quite touching.  You truly root for this couple, even when you’re not sure if Cotten is just angling for her fortune.  They both give terrific performances, and the supporting parts by Stewart and Byington are very good as well.  Also appearing are noir regular John McIntyre and one of the few big screen gigs for Jack Paar.

The photography is nothing to write home about, but it’s fine.  The score is a little hokey.  And like I said, it’s not the most original or nuanced of noir tales.  But it still works as an entertaining film, largely due to the lovely chemistry between the leads.  Rating: Good (74)


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