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White-Headed Stranger: Evil Lurks in Broad Daylight in Rare Selznick Noir

Walk Softly, Stranger

With his prematurely white hair and alarming eyebrows, character actor Paul Stewart was bound to be nicknamed “Whitey” sooner or later. It happened in a most unexpected 1950 David O. Selznick production, directed by Robert Stevenson: Walk Softly, Stranger. All is well behind the white picket fences of the Ohio town where gambler on the lam Joseph Cotten has come to kick-start a life. He’s well liked by his gullible landlady (Spring Byington), by his boss, and by his boss’ daughter, a beautiful wheel-chair-bound heiress played by Selznick recent Italian import Valli. The crook is about to make his move on the heiress when his partner Whitey shows up broke, begging for a last hit. They knock over the poker game of a St. Louis big shot (Howard Petrie, a Western bad man who always looks hot under the collar), but Whitey messes up and has to hide for days in his landlady’s attic. The scenes between Stewart and Byington are very well written by Frank Fenton, who also makes Cotten’s crook very complex. When Stewart complains that he can’t “stand the old crow” and that he has cabin fever, he also puts his finger on Cotten’s dreadful film persona: “I’m not like you, I got blood in my veins!” The ending is conventional, but Stewart’s Whitey makes up for it with his quips about “mowing the lawn without getting mowed,” and with a priceless bit of actor-dog interaction while sitting on the steps with Byington’s mutt. Filled with great turns by character actors more typical of an Anthony Mann picture, Walk Softly, Stranger is a rare Selznick film in which evil lurks behind this well-lit world he thought he knew so well. Showing on the bottom of the same bill on the final weekend of the American Cinematheque’s annual film noir festival, Chicago Syndicate (1955) is another Paul Stewart showcase, and a great undercover story shot on location in Chicago. (American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre; Sun., April 19, 7:30 p.m.) —Philippe Garnier


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