Walk Softly Stranger (1950)
Directed by Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins (1964)) this drama is perfectly cast with Joseph Cotten as its lead. The Manuel Seff and Paul Yawitz play was adapted by Frank Fenton. Cotten plays a man that’s been around as: a card shark a gambler a loser and a small-time thief. However he’s basically a kind non-violent sensitive person who could “fit in” in a small Midwestern town where he’d be happy to settle for the rest of his life. And that’s exactly his plan until his past catches up with him.
The film begins with Chris Hale (Cotten) on a bluff overlooking the small town of Ashton Ohio whose main employer is the Corelli shoe factory. He drives into one of its simple residential neighborhoods and stops in front of a house. In his hand he’s got some notes he’d made about its resident: the house was purchased furnished 10 years ago and is now owned by a widow. He stops a boy (Robert Ellis) skating on the street to verify his information and then goes to the front door. Mrs. Brentman (Spring Byington also great casting) answers the door with her little white barking dog. Helping her with it Chris asks if he might see the home from which he’d run away in his youth. Mrs. Brentman is a kind gentle older woman who quickly recognizes a kindred spirit and instantly trusts in Mr. Hale as she shows him around her home. She feels that he must have had the same room as her son when he lived there and she shows him his former room. He seems to recognize it particularly an older Ohio State Fair glass lamp on the desk. Mrs. Brentman verifies that it was part of what was in the house when she and her husband purchased it furnished 10 years earlier. She explains that her son died in the war. After having some tea together and a brief conversation she offers to give him a reference at the shoe factory with her friend Mr. Morgan (John McIntire). Chris is grateful and upon learning that Mrs. Brentman has thought about renting the room he gently manipulates her into offering it to him.
In fact Chris has controlled the entire affair. Cotten was a good choice for this role because Hale is a convincing liar who you completely believe because of his manner and deftness. He is able to satisfy those that ask him questions without answering them by deflecting the conversation to something else which takes the focus off of himself. So he comes across as an unconfident humble person even though he’s bold enough to con or even rob people at the point of a gun. But I’ve gotten ahead of things:
The next thing Chris does is visit the Ashton Country Club. There’s a party going on inside but a beautiful woman is sitting alone outside. Chris says he knows her that he was once in love with her as the newspaper delivery boy that admired her from afar. She is Elaine Corelli (Alida Valli) the daughter of the factory’s owner. She used to be a socialite in all the society papers until she was crippled in a skiing accident in St. Moritz. Chris explains that they’d never met and that he’d never tried to approach her in those bygone days because of their class difference when he seemingly notices for the first time that she’s in a wheelchair. Her father (Frank Puglia) comes out to see if she needs anything and she introduces him to Chris. Not much more is said before he leaves though we do see an example of Chris’s ability to adopt someone else’s story (about caddying) as his own and he’s charmed her.
The next day his first at the factory Chris is summoned to Corelli’s office almost immediately after Mr. Morgan offers him a job but after he’d met Ray Healey (Jack Paar – yes that Jack Paar in one of only five films he made) another who works there. Corelli tells Chris how much the short time he’d spent with his daughter last night meant to her and him and wants to offer him a position in sales or advertising. Chris declines saying that he’ll take the job Mr. Morgan’s offered him instead if that’s alright. Corelli doesn’t really understand but accepts it and asks Chris to explain the decision to his daughter if he would. Later after getting the scoop (that Morgan never loses) from Mrs. Brentman Chris plays poker with Ray and the boys and loses intentionally to Morgan. After the game Chris approaches the Corelli house from the side where he observes Elaine listening to classical music. He then enters the open door and greets her. Elaine introduces Chris to her maid Miss Thompson (Esther Dale – who else?) who exits to get him something to drink. Elaine and Chris then learn more about each other. He hasn’t read many books which fill the room in which she sits and tells her that he once watched her on Christmas through the windows saying that he never had the money to buy her a gift. He also explains that he declined her father’s offer because his needs are simple and again leaves her wanting through the side door from which he’d entered.
One weekend Chris tells Mrs. Brentman that he’s got to take a trip to help a friend. Though as he describes this friend he could just has well have been speaking about himself. He travels by plane and the next thing you know he’s beating another old “friend” (Will Wright) at cards while the other Whitey (Paul Stewart) waits. Chris and Whitey have evidently “worked” together before and Chris has planned one last score a heist bigger than he’s ever attempted before to enable him to settle down forever. So they rob Bowen (Howard Petrie) the owner of a gambling club of $100000 and walk him out of his own establishment while Chris holds a gun to his back. They then take Bowen in his car some miles away and leave him with $10 to make his way back. Vowing revenge Bowen warns Chris that he better not ever see him again and Chris assures him that he won’t. Back at their hotel Chris tells Whitey to disappear to stay clean forevermore like he will and then bids him goodbye and returns to Ashton.
Back in Ashton Chris learns that Ray and his gal have arranged a double date for him. After buying flowers for the occasion Chris runs into Elaine to whom he lies saying the flowers are for her; he later gives them to Mrs. Brentman. They make a date for that evening but unfortunately for Chris he’s taken Elaine to the very place Ray has taken his girl Mabel (Marlo Dwyer) and the one he stood up Gwen (Jeff Donnell). But like the character he is Chris is able to smooth things over. However Elaine has begun to think that she’s holding Chris back as his pity case. So she decides to travel to separate herself from him. While she’s gone Chris and Miss Thompson become acquainted e.g. betting on horses as he waits for Elaine to return. When she does the two of them have a wonderful Holiday season together (Bess Flowers uncredited can be seen celebrating New Year’s) before a penniless Whitey shows up on Mrs. Brentman’s doorstep. Apparently Chris had given Whitey his matches which Whitey used to find him. After introducing him to Mrs. Brentman Chris enables Whitey to stay with there and tells him to stay out of sight. Of course he doesn’t and Chris’s past revisits him in Ashton in the person of Bowen’s henchman (John Merton uncredited). Conveniently Chris had just taken Mrs. Brentman to the airport for a trip she’d always wanted to take which Chris funded. Before she’d left she’d given him sage advice.
Without giving away the rest suffice it to say that it’s not your typical Hollywood ending. Plus it’s not as strong nor as credible as the rest of this otherwise fine film. There is a price to be paid for sins past but there is also hope for a man who tries to go straight.