Despite the variety of films Joseph Cotton made, his persona such as that in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons are the ones that stick with me. It is for that reason that I always find myself surprised to see him playing a bad guy; although it was not an uncommon part for the star. Between attempting to murder Marilyn Monroe in Niagara and “allegedly” killing old women in Shadow of a Doubt, he played the nice guy with a sinister undercoat quite well.
In Walk Softly, Stranger we again find a likeable Cotton playing a criminal. He is re-teamed with Alida Valli (or in this billing, just Valli) known to audiences from The Third Man made with Cotton the year prior. This was a selling point used in the poster to the right. Cotton’s “Chris Hale” arrives in a small town and wanders up to a house where he tells the old woman within that he ran away from the home as a boy. This Mrs. Brentman (Spring Byington) shows the boy around the home and takes an instant liking to the man, therefore accepting his invitation to be her first tenant.
We know despite Hale’s convincing manner that something is not kosher. When he arrived at the house, he glanced at a note that indicates the home is occupied by a single old woman. His next activity sends him to a party at a mansion where he runs into Valli’s Elaine Correlli. He tells her that he was in love with her as a girl, also revealing details about his days working as a caddy at the country club. We, too, are quite convinced of this truth and Hale’s deserved surprise when he sees the beautiful woman is wheelchair-bound.
After a time living with Mr. Brentman, Hale goes out of town and reunites with a friend, Whitey Lake (Paul Stewart). Here we get to some truth as we witness the men pull off an ambitious robbery of a mobster at his gambling den. Hale returns “home”, plenty of cash in pocket.
The man forces his presence on Elaine until she really starts to care for him. When things get too serious, however, she leaves town, but Hale remains faithful. The situation becomes complicated, however, when Whitey shows up at Hale’s house and stays awhile. He has blown all his dough and is fearful the duo will be hunted down, and indeed they are.
Walk Softly, Stranger is a decently written story. It has a nice dual plot as it could have been a good movie either as a romance between a man and his childhood sweetheart now in a wheelchair or as a suspense following a criminal’s attempts to go straight and keep hidden. As it happens here, the romantic plot serves to drive Hale’s desire to be good and convinces us he is genuine about the transformation as well. Valli brings the soft, sympathetic emotions out in us while Cotton drives our fear and anxiety about an uncertain future.
Both our stars, as well as Stewart and Byington, give suitable performances. We know who to like and who to think twice about. As mentioned, Cotton does a fantastic job of conveying trustworthiness and gentleness that make it difficult to picture him as a villain. He nevertheless fills the shoes of a card shark and thief well, although drawing plenty of sympathy in doing so.