Walter the Stinker
Walter—well, Walter's kind of the worst.
He's a bit of a dirtbag. He isn't trustworthy. He lies. He cheats. He kidnaps. He bullies and insults and manipulates. Hildy calls him a "stinker," a criminal and the descendent of snakes—and these are all pretty true statements… although we never actually see his forked tongue.
Seriously: this dude has actual thugs and molls on staff in case he needs dirty work done. He gets on the phone and calls his reporter's girlfriend a "ten-cent glamour girl." He's selfish, swaggering, awful, and ruthless. What's to like? Why are we even watching this guy?
Walter the Suave
Two words: Cary Grant.
We could watch Cary Grant read the phone book. We could watch Cary Grant eat Nissin Cup Noodles. We could watch Cary Grant sleep… oof. That sounds creepy.
The point is, whenever you start to wonder why Hildy would spend even a moment of marriage with Walter, you just have to look at the screen to realize that she stayed because he's a hottie with a body.
And it's not just that Walter is played by Cary Grant; it's that he's played by Cary Grant at his most swooningly charming. Yes, Walter is a jerk and a bully. But he's also incredibly smart and quick and funny. He hired a plane to fly overhead during his divorce from Hildy with the message,
Hildy, don't be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.
How sweet is that? Of course, it's not just sweet—it's also incredibly conceited. Walter goes on to say:
WALTER: I've still got the dimple, and in the same place.
Walter knows he's hot stuff. He knows that he has charisma. He knows that his butt-chin in the source of his superpowers of sexual chemistry.
And he really does. He's the perfect combination of swagger, self-effacement, and teasing. (Hey, it's almost as if Hollywood dreamed up the perfect man…) And of course it's the "teasing" aspect that makes Hildy and Walter such a dynamic duo: they're both able to tease each other mercilessly. It's clearly their preferred form of foreplay:
HILDY: I spent six weeks in Reno, then Bermuda, oh, about four months, I guess. It seems like yesterday to me.
WALTER: Maybe it was yesterday, Hildy. Been seeing me in your dreams?
HILDY: Oh, no, Mama doesn't dream about you anymore, Walter. You wouldn't know the old girl now.
WALTER: I'd know you [Hildy finishes the sentence with him] anytime, anyplace, anywhere.
The seeing-me-in-your-dreams bit is a corny line, but Walter delivers it with pizzazz, and Hildy knocks it right back with that flirtatious (and weirdly incestuous) "Mama doesn't dream about you anymore." Bruce is solid, dependable, nice—but Walter's knock-your-socks-off charming.
He's also fun. Hildy reminisces about the good times she had with him:
HILDY: Remember the time we stole Old Lady Haggerty's stomach off the coroner's physician...We proved she'd been poisoned then, didn't we, Walter?
Okay, so that's not exactly the kind of fun most people enjoy having, but when you're a fast-talking lady journalist in mid-century New York, it's probably your idea of an awesome Saturday night.
Walter the Talker
So who's the real Walter: the stinker or the gallant? It's hard to tell…in part because it's hard to tell where the real Walter is—or isn't—beneath that whirlwind of talk.
Walter gabs and gabs. And then he gabs some more. And this is notable because, in a whipsmart talkie from 1940 where everyone is uber-gabby, Walter is the gabbiest of them all.
When he's onscreen, he's chattering so fast his words have the same effect as a blizzard—people are bewildered and don't know which way is up. Bruce is bemused; Hildy is flummoxed; people on the other end of various phone lines don't even get a word in edgewise.
Occasionally, he says something that seems like it's almost revelatory or vulnerable—
WALTER: I wish you hadn't done that, Hildy… Divorce me. Makes a fellow lose all faith in himself... Almost gives him a feeling he wasn't wanted."
—but then he's right back to boasting and flirting and joking and bullying. (Also, notice that Walter's bad feelings about being dumped have to do with the fact that "he wasn't wanted," not that he, say, "missed her.")
Walter's a newspaperman, so it makes sense that in a lot of ways he's just a whirl of words. Does he want Hildy back because he loves her? Or because she's a great newspaperwoman? Or maybe just because he wants to win?
Maybe, in all that chatter, even Walter doesn't know for sure.