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While Joseph Cotten appeared in films for over forty years, his career flourished during the 1940s and early 1950s. He did star in worthy films after this time frame (Hush Hush . . . Sweet Charlotte, 1964), but his career began a downward spiral in the mid-1950s and never really recovered. Walk Softly, Stranger was made in 1948 during the peak of his career, after Duel in the Sun (1946) and around the time of Portrait of Jennie (1948) and The Third Man (1949). Not released until 1950, Walk Softly, Stranger takes advantage of the type of storyline Cotten thrived on during his heyday--the romantic melodrama peppered with a little mystery or crime.
In the film, Cotten portrays a gambler who breezes into Ashton, a small town in Ohio. He knocks on the door of lonely Mrs. Brentman, claiming to have lived in the house as a boy. When Mrs. Brentman, played by a chirpy Spring Byington, remarks that he must be Chris Hale, he agrees, though the viewer suspects that he is not who he claims to be. Mrs. Brentman, a widow who has lost her only son in the war, invites Chris to rent "his old room," and he accepts. She also gets him a job in the local shoe factory owned by the Corelli family. Chris meets Elaine Corelli, played by Italian actress Alida Valli, at the local country club, and the two strike up a melancholy conversation. Elaine has lost interest in life after being paralyzed in a skiing accident, but she warms to Chris who claims to have had a boyhood crush on her.
Chris's true identity is revealed when he travels to another state to rob a gambling boss of $200,000 with his partner Whitey Lake, played by Paul Stewart. After the robbery, Chris plans to return to Ashton and romance Elaine in order to bilk her out of part of the family fortune. The unlikely romance turns out to be real, and Chris falls in love with Elaine. But, his new life is threatened when Whitey, who is broke, scared, and on the lam from the gambling boss, tracks him down in Ashton. In the process of dealing with his shady past, Chris redeems himself but not without paying for his crimes. The film ends on an upbeat note with Elaine promising to wait for Chris.
The arrival of Cotten's character into tiny Ashton spins off his role in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) in which he portrayed a serial killer who brought evil to small-town America. Stranger's opening scene depicts Cotten looking over the little valley town while a billboard for Ashton looms in the background, suggesting that some menace is about to disrupt the peaceful townsfolk. So Cotten is suspect right away because of his association with the Hitchcock film, and those suspicions are soon confirmed when he assumes the identity of Chris Hale. Chris turns out to be less evil than Shadow's Uncle Charlie because he is redeemed when he falls in love in a near-impossible romance, not unlike the doomed relationship in Portrait of Jennie or the tainted one in The Third Man. Cotten's low-key personality and resonant voice were perfect for playing either elegant gentlemen come-a-courtin' or mysterious characters with something to hide -- or both.
Despite making clever use of Joseph Cotten's star image, Walk Softly, Stranger was a box-office flop. Originally titled Weep No More, the film was supposedly offered to Alfred Hitchcock, with Cary Grant tapped to star, though that may have been only industry scuttlebutt. By the time production got underway at RKO, Cotten and Valli were the stars, and Robert Stevenson was assigned to direct. The film was produced under the reign of Dore Schary, who had been named executive vice president in charge of production at RKO around 1947. In the postwar era, Schary was one of a handful of notable executive producers interested in making films dealing with serious social issues, such as Crossfire (1947), a film about bigotry. In that vein, the bitter aftermath of World War II hangs over Stranger like a black cloud: Mrs. Brentman's son was killed in the war, leaving her a lonely, grieving mother; Elaine assumes Chris Hale's melancholy and cynicism are the result of his experiences in the war. This minor bit of social criticism regarding the effects of war on the homefront suited Dore Schary's interests. Unfortunately for Schary, his liberal agenda clashed with the personality of Howard Hughes who bought RKO in 1948--the year Walk Softly, Stranger was shot. When Schary left RKO after weeks of fighting with Hughes, the billionaire shelved the film.
Hughes contemplated releasing the film in February, 1949 to take advantage of the good publicity of The Third Man, also starring Cotten and Valli, but instead, he opted to shoot a new ending. With David O. Selznick's help, Hughes hired Oliver H.P. Garrett to write a new ending (Selznick sometimes collaborated with RKO; Cotten, Valli, and Stevenson were on loan from Selznick). Given Hughes's dislike of message films, it is likely that Garrett turned a downbeat ending in which Chris loses Elaine through his own failings into an optimistic conclusion with hope for the future. Walk Softly, Stranger was finally released the following year but tanked at the box office, losing $775,000.
Hughes's tinkering with the release schedule and lack of faith in Stranger doomed it to failure more than any shortcomings within the film itself. While not an influential classic or an example of innovative filmmaking, Walk Softly, Stranger is typical fare from the Golden Age in which a formulaic story is bolstered by solid performances and stellar cinematography.
Robert Stevenson had directed several dark melodramas for RKO and was at home with the studio's 1940s house style. The home of some of the best films noirs plus Val Lewton's horror cycle, RKO is acclaimed for its use of low-key and high-contrast lighting to enhance the storylines and themes of its narratives. Examples in Walk Softly, Stranger include a scene in which Chris talks to Mrs. Brentman about "his friend," a card sharp who is in trouble. But, the troubled gambler is really talking about himself. As Mrs. Brentman listens in the foreground, Chris lingers in the dark shadows of the midground, shrouding the character in mystery and suggesting he has something to hide from her and the viewer. At other times, a high-contrast lighting casts Chris's exact shadow shape against the wall, in effect showing us "two" Chris Hales in the manner of the German Expressionists who used this technique to indicate a doppelganger--a character with two sides to him. And, like many of RKO's films noirs, Walk Softly, Stranger offers the theme that no one can escape his past; the gloomy, atmospheric lighting styles help support this dark theme. The lighting in the film is not only beautiful but meaningful, adding atmosphere and depth to the story.
Despite the claims of some, the failure of Walk Softly, Stranger did not hurt the careers of the principals. Cotten went on to make other high-profile films, including Niagara (1953) with Marilyn Monroe; Stevenson moved to Disney where he directed such classics as Old Yeller (1957) and Mary Poppins (1964); Schary enjoyed a successful career at MGM; and Valli returned to Europe, where she continued to make films for several decades.
Producer: Robert Sparks
Director: Robert Stevenson
Screenplay: Frank Fenton; Manuel Seff, Paul Yawitz (story)
Cinematography: Harry J. Wild
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Alfred Herman
Music: Friedrich Hollaender
Film Editing: Frederic Knudtson
Cast: Joseph Cotten (Chris Hale aka Steve), Alida Valli (Elaine Corelli), Spring Byington (Mrs. Brentman), Paul Stewart (Whitey Lake), Jack Paar (Ray Healy), Jeff Donnell (Gwen), John McIntire (Morgan), Howard Petrie (Bowen), Frank Puglia (A.J. Corelli), Esther Dale (Miss Thompson), Marlo Dwyer (Mabel), Robert Ellis (Skating Boy).
by Susan Doll