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Walk Softly, Stranger

Director: Robert Stevenson. Screenplay: Frank Fenton based on a story by Manuel Seff, Paul Yawitz. Producer: Robert Sparks. Executive Producer: Dore Schary. Director of Photography: Harry J. Wild. Music: Frederick Hollander. Art Dircetors: Albert S. D’Agostino, Alfred Herman. Editor: Frederick Knudtson. Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson. Cast: Joseph Cotton (Chris Hale aka Steve), Valli [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). Released: RKO, October 14, 1950. 81 minutes.

Plot Summary

Good things happen to Chris after he comes to Ashton, Ohio. The kindly Mrs. Brentman invites him to board in her house, where he says he grew up, and she gets him a job in a shoe factory. He also meets Elaine, the daughter of the factory owner, and falls in love. Whether or not Ashton’s his hometown (evidence goes both ways), he is building a new life to have after he commits a robbery. He flies to a big city and meets an accomplice, Whitey. They steal $100,000 in cash from Bowen, the head of a gambling house. When they split the money, Chris tells Whitey to get a new identity so that Bowen can’t find him. Because Elaine is confined to a wheelchair, she is vulnerable to thinking that love with Chris won’t work. She leaves town but can’t stay away. Their romance is put on hold when Whitey shows up, broke and scared. Chris tries to hide Whitey. He plans to give his share of the money back to Bowen. Instead, Bowen finds Whitey and the money, and takes Chris for a ride. Chris lives, and when he gets out of prison, Elaine promises to “belong” to him.

Commentary

In A Place in the Sun the dichotomy between romantic melodrama and noir is represented by two characters, Angela and Alice, as well as by two visual styles, classic and noir. In Walk Softly, Stranger, it is based on geography.

The romantic world is fictitious Ashton, where, as a brochure says, people can “enjoy healthful, happy living.” The noir world is located far away, in places reached by airplanes, where Chris has been “a gambler, a card shark, a dice hustler [and] a thief,” and his name is “Steve.”

Epitomized by Mrs. Brentman, friendliness and generosity prevail in Ashton, and social distinctions don’t matter. The stakes in card games played by different classes are about the same, just friendly wagers, without heavy betting as in the noir world. When Corelli factory workers play poker at home, the pots are no more than a few dollars. At the Ashton Country Club, Elaine’s father is delighted to be up sixty-five cents in gin rummy. At the country club and a working class nightclub, couples dance to identical music.

Ashton is also associated with romanticized geography through the film’s title. The lines “Walk softly stranger. You stand on holy ground,” come from a tribute written during WWII to the “beauty [and] wonder that is America.” 

A man Chris has beaten at cards criticizes him, “You can’t let yourself lose…You can’t help it, can you?” From their first meeting Elaine is attracted to Chris. When he takes her to a nightclub, they have fun until she bets him that he can’t get a woman he stood up for a date to dance with him. Winning the bet isn’t enough; he dances closely with the woman right in front of Elaine. It isn’t being paralyzed from a skiing accident that makes Elaine embittered. Chris is at fault. She thinks he couldn’t really love her because he would be “tied down to a cripple.” Her dark past is inside – feeling “dead” that she can’t “walk and dance and live” as before.

However, despite his mistakes from character flaws, Chris doesn’t give up trying to win Elaine’s love. He is like the male intruder-redeemer in later 1950s melodramas, such as Young at Heart and Picnic. Before Chris takes a ride with Bowen, Elaine says her love for him is “real and alive and whole.” He has helped her to see that even if her body isn’t whole, she can be alive, not dead. His dark past is outside – Bowen.

Elaine also says, “Be lucky, Chris.” Indeed! As Chris holds a blanket over the driver’s head so he can’t steer Bowen’s car, Bowen shoots Chris three times at point-blank range. The car runs off the road and bursts through a billboard, which shows an airplane and reads, “Next Time…Go By Air.” To places where planes fly, the noir world, the bullets and the crash would most likely kill Chris. But since he belongs to the charmed community of Ashton, governed by romantic melodrama, the gangsters die, and he survives to have Elaine.