CAUUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
Director Eric Till’s “The Walking Stick” is not generally considered a film noir–which leads me to wonder how well our noir-meisters really understand the term. Dealing as it does with betrayal and the corruption of innocence, I can’t think of a more fittingly noir offering.
Because the film is not well-known, despite it’s being a relatively recent production (1969, released in 1970), a brief synopsis is in order. Deborah Dainton (Samantha Eggar) is an employee of a posh London auction-house. She is also a young woman who has allowed a childhood bout with polio to define who and what she is. Although its lasting effects have been no more noticeable than a pronounced limp in her right leg, she relies upon a slender, elegantly carved walking-stick to get her around town. To make matters worse, she has two sisters: one a brainy physician, the other a stunner with no shortage of male admirers. At one of the stunner’s parties she makes the acquaintance of Leigh Hartley (David Hemmings), a seemingly brash and opinionated artist who is drawn to her. Despite her most determined efforts to put him off, the two become lovers. Leigh isn’t hardly as brash as he first appeared, he’s hyper-sensitive about his failure to make good as a painter–one gallery owner patiently explains to him that he’s really an illustrator and not a proper artist at all–and increasingly jittery as a legacy from an aunt is beginning to run out. Despite the apparent mismatch, Leigh and Deborah are actually good for each other. He makes her realize that she is far from an ugly duckling and even manages to pry her walking stick away from her. She convinces Leigh to put his flights of artistic glory on hold and actually look for work as a commercial artist.
So far, an interesting Sixties romance, but truth begins to seep through to dissolve the fantasy. Leigh has told Deborah a string of lies about himself. There is no aunt, no legacy. Jack Foil (Emlyn Williams), a smiling antique shop owner first introduced to Deborah as Leigh’s patron turn out to be Leigh’s boss. And Leigh himself is a much better thief than he is an artist. Then the pieces fall into place. The romance was a set-up. Jack’s gang is planning to rob Deborah’s employers and they need an “inside man” to pull the job off.
Now Deborah’s house-of-cards romance comes crashing down around her. She really is pathetic. Unattractive. Leigh only romanced her to pull her into a robbery scheme. But Leigh continues to insist that he truly loves Deborah and that their share of robbery proceeds will allow them to break away from Foil and make a new life for themselves. Can the once-deceived Deborah trust Leigh again? And really, if Leigh and Foil have already conned her into helping them a steal a fortune in antique gems, why should Leigh even bother to continue the charade? Perhaps Leigh really has fallen for Deborah, who despite her misgivings, pluckily goes along with the robbery plan and helps it to succeed. (Till has thus far directed the film in a subdued, even stately manner, but when he comes to the actually robbery, it’s as brutal and harsh as anything in British noir. Even the limping Deborah is shoved and pushed to the floor as Leigh and his associates come barreling through the door that she has unlocked for them.)
Finally, “The Walking Stick” is a double-barreled tragedy, in that Deborah is not only betrayed, but the betrayal re-introduces and reinforces every bad opinion she’s ever had of herself. Perhaps if Deborah was just foolish enough, or romantic enough to believe in Leigh one more time, things might end differently.
Instead she pens a letter to the police confessing her role in the robbery and implicating Leigh and his partners. Now all will go to prison. Everything ends badly in the best noir fashion–except that perhaps, for Deborah, being imprisoned has always been her natural state of affairs. She’s merely trading a brick-and-mortal cell for the iron lung that imprisoned her as a child and the walking stick that imprisoned her as an adult.