Released a year after The Third Man and advertised as an “exciting adventure” that re-pairs its stars (sans Welles), I read Walk Softly, Stranger (1950) instead as an opportunity to see Joseph Cotten do a fantastic job of playing hard-boiled and Alida Valli fitted into as Bergmanesque a role as possible. He is the tough guy with a soft spot, and she is the soft rich beauty made hard by a skiing accident that leaves her permanently wheelchair-bound. For love, he tries to heal his criminal past while she tries to open her heart. It’s a sad romance with noir flourishes and I thoroughly enjoyed it. To the noir angle, add Paul Stewart as an inept criminal partner who louses everything up. And to the romance angle, add Spring Byington as the well-meaning widow who takes Cotten in and nurtures his human side.It’s not exciting and it ends more romance than noir, but it’s an engaging (melo)drama, and Cotten really owns the role.
Beyond its dark romance, Walk Softly, Stranger interests me for its engagement with the subject of desire. I don’t mean it’s swimming in eroticism — this is no Born to Kill or The Postman Always Rings Twice. Rather, it is a film in which multiple characters share thoughts about desire and its role in men’s and women’s lives. Unlike much of noir, however, women’s sexuality is put on a back burner. Valli’s Elaine Corelli is, as just mentioned, wheelchair-bound, seemingly paralyzed from the waist down. She eschews romance and adventure, seemingly blaming herself for the skiing accident as part of too wild a life as a rich girl with no serious ambitions. She pushes Cotten’s pseudonymous “Chris Hale” away, obviously falling for him but feeling a woman in a wheelchair has no right to romance. The other women in the film include Byington’s Mrs. Brentman, who says she has about as much desire in her as a burned out refrigerator, and Elaine’s middle-aged spinster maid Miss Thompson (Esther Dale), who, like Mrs. Brentman, encourages the young folks but distances herself from anything more exciting than winning $4 in a game of gin rummy with Chris.
In some ways, Elaine is noir’s typical nurturing “good” woman, passively supportive of the man she loves and living in his shadow. There isn’t much for Valli to do with this role other than encourage viewer pity and sympathy as she is lovely to look at but hesitant to be held. In perhaps the film’s most fascinating scene, she encourages Chris to dance with the date he ditched for her when all show up in a working-class club. The two even bet on whether his charms will allow him to seduce the angry gal into his arms despite his mistreatment, and he wins. Elaine watches them dance, intimate and close, as Chris meets her gaze in a very interesting moment of exhibitionism and voyeurism with hints of sadism and masochism that draw the criminal/cripple couple together more tightly than ever. Chris proves his charm is irresistible but does not act on it beyond the dance. Elaine proves to herself that she is not a “real” woman though she still wants Chris.
By the time the film comes to an end, Chris is a prisoner who knows he must do time for his crimes if he wants to feel worthy of the honest and loving Elaine, whom he has truly come to love. And Elaine declares she will “belong to him” even as they are divided by prison walls. She suggests they are finally equals now, both wounded and separated from the world of romance. I’d go further and say the film ends on a warning that one should not give in to one’s passions — she for the kind of adventure that landed her in a wheelchair and he for the excitement of thievery and cheating others. Both have been humbled and their emotionally intimate but physically separate kind of desire is what they are allowed and deserve.
Making disability into a symbol is common in the movies and problematic. Elaine seems to suffer no pain or discomfort from her condition. We don’t know if she had surgeries, takes medication, or even what she looks like below the waist. There is no awkwardness shown, and though the couple has one embrace as Chris takes Elaine out of the car and they kiss “goodbye,” we are not allowed to see how this might be anything but a “normal” bridal carry pose — one of two kisses allowed to the couple.
As for Chris, his self-recrimination is not atypical of a certain type of noir criminal character, but it is oddly combined with his lack of interest in other women — no past romances or flings alluded to, though repeated mention of his ability to get whatever he wants. If women in wheelchairs can have love, it must be with an equally “wounded” man, and he must not only accept but desire a relatively bloodless bond.
They truly are an odd couple in an odd little noir. There’s a taped version from TCM available at archive.org. Take a look and see what you think.