I felt compelled to take a look at this one for reuniting of Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, after their display of chemistry in The Third Man, which never got much a chance to percolate in Graham Greene’s mordantly cruel scenario. Cotten plays a diametrically different character in this film, a wandering card sharp and thief, Steve, who arrives one day in the “little big city” of Ashton, tosses a coin, and decides to make his new life here.
Posing as a former local son, Chris Hale, he quickly knits himself a new identity and sense of belonging. His plan is to be impossible to find, once he and his associate Whitey (Paul Stewart) steal from a noxious gambling boss. Their heist goes off, and they separate. Chris is soon romancing Elaine Corelli (Valli), wealthy but wheelchair-bound heiress of the town’s big shoe factory. What might start out as a quick on-the-make bit of gigolo business turns genuine, as Hale soon finds his own life readily analogous to her crippled state, and their mix of desperate longing and lying soon alchemises into a proper romance, just as fate begins to catch up with him.
Walk Softly, Stranger isn’t really another noir film, but actually stands in the poetic-realist tradition, faintly reminiscent of Hotel du Nord in blending grit and transcendence in both dialogue and theme. Robert Stephenson, the English yeoman who had made Joan of Paris with nods to the poetic-realist mode, and would later become Disney’s major live-action director with the likes of Mary Poppins, directs. Poetic-realism had been the most influential stylistic movement of the ‘30s, and both Greene, who admired the films greatly in his days as Spectator film critic, and both Carol Reed and Robert Stephenson, beginning their directorial careers at the time, would have been surely aware of the debts both The Third Man and this film owe Marcel Carne and Julien Duvivier. But Stranger is not nearly as sophisticated, or fatalistic, however, and mistakes sentimentality for poeticism. Stephenson had neither Reed’s sense of style nor Carne’s lightness of touch.
The final scene is damned awkward in trying to satisfy Mr Breen, the happy ending, and its own recklessly romantic heart all at once. Cotten is swell as the feckless faux-tough, and he and fellow Kane alumnus Stewart work sweetly together as brother losers. Valli registers emotions with a miniaturist’s grace, particularly in the biting scene in which she watches Cotten dance with a local girl.