Surely one of the classic movie screen’s most bittersweet romantic misfires occurs in 1950’s The Third Man, director Carol Reed’s masterpiece filmed in post World War II Vienna.
Joseph Cotten as American pulp fiction writer Holly Martins falls for a beautiful Eastern European woman (Alida Valli) caught up in the murderous cold war politics that gripped the Austrian capital.
What is certain is that she cannot reciprocate the heartfelt romantic overtures coming from Martins. Body and soul she belongs, of course, to the movie’s execrable villain Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who after being dispatched at movie’s end by local Polizei is buried in a frigid Vienna cemetery.
Martins senses his opportunity and in the film’s final scene — one of the most memorable in movie history — he awaits Valli’s character as she leaves Lime’s burial site.
Here’s how Cotten remembered that scene years later: The hero (Cotten), smoking a cigarette, was standing in the foreground waiting for her. Like the audience, he was confident she would join him, and they would stroll away happily together, arm in arm.
Valli walked on and on, closer and closer, until at last she was a life-sized figure in the foreground with the hero. And then, without turning her head, or even glancing in his direction, she continues her steady pace, out of the shot and into limbo.
What audiences didn’t know then was that The Third Man was NOT the first screen pairing of Cotten and Valli, who was born in what is now Croatia in 1921, and made some 140 films mostly in Europe over a 65-year career. She died in 2006 in Rome at age 84.
(At one point Valli, under contract to David O. Selznick, was touted as “the next Garbo.” She found herself being billed by just her surname.)
In 1948, Valli and Cotten costarred in the RKO melodrama Walk Softly, Stranger.
In this clunker, Cotten portrays a shady thief on the lam, who settles in a small town and takes up with the daughter (Valli) of a wealthy manufacturer. She’s confined to a wheelchair after a St. Moritz skiing accident.
It is Valli’s character who falls hard for a pre-occupied Cotten, who barely reciprocates at first. A romance does gradually take hold as the picture unfolds — as do threats from a gambling syndicate seeking to retrieve a substantial sum stolen by Cotten.
There are things to like about Walk Softly, Stranger. The cast includes such fine characters actors as Spring Byington, Paul Stuart, John McIntire and — one of our favorite supporting actresses — Jeff Donnell. But, alas, the movie is a mess largely induced by an incoherent screenplay and listless direction by Robert Stevenson. (In his elegantly written 1987 autobiography, Cotten made no mention of even having made the picture.)
So it’s not terribly surprising that after production ended in the summer of 1948, RKO mogul Howard Hughes shelved the movie for nearly two years. Walk Softly, Stranger didn’t see the light of a theater until AFTER The Third Man opened and quickly became a big international hit. The former’s one-sheet blurb urged audiences to see the stars of ‘The 3rd Man’ in a new exciting adventure!
Walk Softly, Stranger was hardly new nor exciting.
A trivia bonus: the movie is one of five that The Tonight Show tv host Jack Paar (predecessor to Johnny Carson) made as an actor.