(Open Thread) Noir Side Street — “Walk Softly, Stranger”

Nouvelle Vague (the residues of alphaville). Photo by Emiliano Grusovin.

Today’s movie was made in 1948–but not released until 1950–called “Walk Softly, Stranger,” starring Joseph Cotton (Chris “Steve” Hale), Alida Valli (credited simply as “Valli” as Elaine Corelli), Spring Byington (Mrs. Brentman), Paul Stewart (Whitey Lake), John McIntire (Morgan), Jack Paar (Ray Healy), Howard Petrie (Bowen), and Jeff Donnell (Gwen). Directed by Robert Stevenson; cinematography by Harry J. Wild. Produced by Dore Schary (Executive Producer) and Robert Sparks for RKO Pictures/Vanguard Films. Distributed by RKO Pictures. Screenplay by Frank Fenton, from a story by Manuel “Manny” Seff and Paul Yawitz.

Your trailer:

The film has a run-time of 81 minutes, because the noir veterans at RKO knew how to tell a story in a spare way, without feeling like anything important had been let out. It’s tightly-written, well-acted, ably directed, and moves at a manageable pace (doesn’t drag at all or feel rushed at any point). It manages to walk a tight line between being a romance and a crime story, while giving a fair hearing to both. In other words, it has all the elements of greatness, but it just misses the mark, which is why it’s languished in obscurity for decades.

Sadly, this film is a case study in how a tacked-on, illogically-applied happy ending ruins what could’ve been a great film in the genre. (That’s not to say a happy ending can’t work in noir; it’s just that this happy ending makes no sense at all to the overall story.)

Any story has an internal logic, so when you go changing things (like the ending), it sends ripples throughout the rest of the work, creating inconsistencies in the plot and characters. A good writer can catch and fix these issues, especially if there are others there to help. But, that didn’t happen here. And that’s what makes it all so jarring. Which is why this film sat on a shelf for two years before it was finally released; and, even then, it was only released because Howard Hughes wanted to capitalize on the success of Cotton and Valli in “The Third Man.”

If only Dore Schary hadn’t left RKO once Hughes bought the studio, this may well have been a star in the noir movement. As it is, the silly ending tarnishes it.

So while I want to love this film, I just can’t. If you watch it and imagine Fenton’s original script ending, then you can still enjoy it for what it could have been. Because of that, I give this 3 out of 5 unfiltered cigarette puffs.

Next week’s movie is “Mr. Soft Touch.” Eddie Muller our host at Noir Alley will be taking Christmas and New Year’s Day off, but I’ll be doing my own programming for those two weeks. I already have the Jan 1 film selected. Still trying to decide what to share for Christmas Day. Noir film suggestions with a Christmas element are welcome in the comments below.

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