Alida Valli possessed a stern, aristocratic beauty: A wide face covered with dark, voluptuous hair, and featuring large, profoundly expressive green eyes that could convey with equal intensity either soulfulness or evil. Alida Valli was also a capable — at times outstanding — performer, and one of the top Italian actresses of the twentieth century. In a career that spanned seven decades, she appeared in more than 110 feature films including a number of classics such as Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954), and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Grido (1957).
She was born Alida Maria Laura von Altenburger on May 3, 1921, in Pola, a town located in Italy’s Istria region. (Renamed Pula, the town currently is part of Croatia.) Her father was a philosophy professor and part-time music critic of aristocratic Austrian descent (Alida’s title was Baroness of Marckenstein and Frauenberg) and her mother was a piano teacher of mixed German-Italian parentage. [See comments below.] Not long after Alida’s birth, the family moved to Como, where Alida attended a local school until the age of 15. Following her father’s death, she and her mother went to Rome where Alida was to study acting at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (CPC), the motion picture academy recently set up by Mussolini.
Some publications, probably using as a source David Shipman’s The Great Movie Stars: The International Years, state that Alida’s feature film debut occurred in the 1934 Lido Film comedy Il Cappello a tre punte / Three Cornered Hat, directed by Mario Camerini. That seems unlikely, as — if her dates are correct — Alida moved to Rome only in 1936. According to most sources, her first feature film role was in a bit part — billed as Alida Altenburger — in I Due sergenti / The Two Sergeants, a 1936 drama directed by veteran Enrico Guazzoni (Quo Vadis). (As per Istrianet, a website dedicated to famous Istrians, at the age of 9 Alida appeared in a British short film named Gypsy Land. The source for this bit of information was not provided on the site.)
"We [at the CPC] were mad about film," Valli would later recall. "And we also thought a lot about love. The older ones sensed the oncoming tragedy, but I was the youngest and I didn’t understand a whole lot." Although at first the shy teenager lacked the drive to become a working actress, she was propelled forward by the CPC teachers, especially the renowned film historian Francesco Pasinetti, who, according to John Francis Lane’s Guardian obit, "had every right to claim later that he had been her Pygmalion." Her surname now changed to the more Italian-sounding Valli (supposedly found by chance in the phone book), she rapidly moved up in the cast list of her films.
In the late 1930s, she landed important roles in several "white telephone" productions — escapist fare that bore little in common with the reality of most Italians. (In fact, those films were not that thematically different from most of the Hollywood melodramas and comedies of that era.) Among those were, in 1937, Raffaello Matarazzo’s comedy Sono stato io! (It Was I!), in which she plays opposite the Neapolitan acting family Eduardo, Peppino, and Titina DeFilippo, and Umberto Barbaro’s L’ultima nemica / The Last Enemy, from a screenplay co-written by the director and Valli’s mentor Pasinetti, and starring popular leading man Fosco Giachetti as a doctor battling disease. Two of her 1938 releases were Max Neufeld’s La Casa del peccato (The House of Sin), starring two of Italy’s biggest stars, Amedeo Nazzari and Assia Noris, and Giuseppe Amato’s sentimental Ma l’amore mio non muore (But My Love Doesn’t Die), once again with the DeFilippo trio.
Valli achieved real stardom with two 1939 comedies, both taken from Hungarian originals, and directed by the Austro-Hungarian Neufeld: Mille lire al mese (One Thousand Lire per Month) and Assenza ingiustificata (Absence Without Leave). The former, considered one of her best films of the period, is a tale of mistaken identities and romantic triangles, while the latter revolves around a young woman (Valli) who decides to go back to school without the knowledge of her doctor husband (Amedeo Nazzari).
She worked in two other escapist Neufeld comedies in 1940 — the year Italy entered World War II: La Prima donna che passa (The First Lady to Walk By), a comedy set in 1600 France, and the "white telephone" farce Taverna rossa (Red Tavern). Her big film of the year, however, was the costume drama Manon Lescaut. In this adaptation of the Abbé Prévost novel directed by Carmine Gallone, Valli plays the title role opposite matinee idol Vittorio De Sica. The New York Times found the actress "not only tremulously beautiful but emotionally sincere."
Valli’s popularity in the Italian film industry was now near its peak. A poll in the late 1930s had placed her behind only Assia Noris as the most popular female star in the country. By the early 1940s, when she became known as "Italy’s Sweetheart," Valli was at the top of the list. Even Mussolini described her as the most beautiful woman in the world after Greta Garbo. For the 19-year-old star, fame and adulation brought both riches and difficulties.
"I was never aware of having represented the dreams of so many Italians," Valli is quoted as saying in Enzo Biagi’s L’espresso article. "I didn’t think I as beautiful. I thought I was simpatica, but with an impossible personality. In order to hide my fears I expressed myself in a very aggressive manner. My first salary was 1,500 lire, but right way it skyrocketed to 25,000 lire. I lived in a fantastic world — I was pampered, cuddled, in great demand." At the time, Italcine signed her to a five-year contract.
She next scored an artistic triumph in Mario Soldati’s 1941 version of Antonio Fogazzaro’s classic novel Piccolo mondo antico / Old-Fashioned World. Set in 19th Century Lombardy, this family drama depicts the travails of a young married couple (Valli and Massimo Serato) of different social classes — he’s a nobleman; she’s a clerk’s daughter. Besides having to deal with social prejudices, they must also cope with the death of their daughter, who drowns in Lake Como. For her role, which won her the Best Actress Award at the Venice Film Festival, Valli must run the gamut from sweet working-class girl to near-mad grieving mother.
Soldati liked his star so much he wanted her for Malombra (1942), based on a Fogazzaro Gothic novel about a woman who believes she is the reincarnation of her uncle’s first wife. The film’s backers, however, demanded that Isa Miranda be cast. "I didn’t want Miranda," Soldati later lamented. "I saw the perfect creature for the role: Alida Valli. . . . I would have married her."
Another major success followed in 1942, Mario Mattoli’s Stasera niente di nuovo (Nothing New This Evening), the story of a prostitute who refuses help from the reporter who loves her. In the film Valli gets to sing (slightly off-key) Giovanno D’Anzi’s gigantic hit "Ma l’amore no." (In 1955, Mattoli would remake the film — as L’Ultimo amante [The Last Lover], with May Britt in Valli’s old role.)
Outside of Italy, however, Alida Valli’s best-known film during that phase of her career remains Noi vivi / We the Living (1942), based on Ayn Rand’s anti-Communist novel — and produced without the author’s approval. Released in two parts, as Noi vivi and Addio Kira!, the political love story was a major success in Italy. That is, except with the Mussolini government. The Fascist rulers felt that Alessandrini had purposefully made an anti-totalitarian film directed against the regime. Five months after its initial release, Noi vivi was withdrawn. Forty years would pass before the two parts of the film were restored and rereleased (as one) to considerable critical acclaim. (More on Noi vivi.)
Despite its excessive length, the melodramatic storyline, and Goffredo Alessandrini’s uninspired direction, Noi vivi remains a thoroughly engaging example of political filmmaking. War shortages notwithstanding, the film’s production values are excellent (especially Giuseppe Caracciolo’s luminescent black-and-white cinematography), and Valli does remarkably well as a woman in love with one man (Rossano Brazzi) while being forced by political circumstances to pretend to love another (Fosco Giachetti), for whom she eventually develops real feelings.
Valli’s intense, melancholy performance was perhaps aided by events taking place in her life at the time. During production, she discovered that her lover, a fighter pilot and the son of a rich textile manufacturer from Como, had been killed in action the year before. (In a situation similar to the one she had played in Piccolo mondo antico, his family did not approve of his association with the actress, and had coerced him into an arranged marriage.)
At that time, Italcine was forced to shut down for political reasons. After appearing in a handful of 1943 productions for other companies, including the romantic drama T’amerò sempre (I’ll Love You Forever) with Gino Cervi, Valli went into hiding in order to avoid making propaganda films for the Nazis. They had entered Rome after Italy signed the armistice with the Allies, and had requested Valli’s services from their Venice headquarters. (Curiously, in 1945 her mother was shot and wounded by anti-Fascist forces, who accused her of being a collaborationist.)
Valli stayed away from the cameras for most of 1944, finding plenty of time to marry Trieste-born jazz composer and surrealist painter Oscar de Mejo. The couple would have two children.
She returned to the screen in 1945 with two films: her seventh and last vehicle for Mario Mattoli, La Vita ricomincia (Life Begins Again), which also marked her fifth and final pairing with Fosco Giachetti, and her fifth and final film under Carmine Gallone’s direction, Il Canto della vita (The Song of Life). But it was Eugenia Grandet (1947), Mario Soldati’s adaptation of Balzac’s novel, that marked Valli’s return to form. As the suffering Eugenia, she won a best actress Nastro d’Argento from the Union of Italian Film Journalists — and caught the eye of American independent producer David O. Selznick.
In dire need of a prestigious import now that Ingrid Bergman had left his stable of players and ever ready to discover the next Garbo, Selznick felt that Valli had the requisite allure to enrapture film audiences. After the actress was cleared by the U.S. State Department to ensure that she had not been a collaborationist (an anonymous letter had been sent to the U.S. embassy in Rome accusing her of having been Joseph Goebbels‘ mistress), the Gone with the Wind producer put her under contract. Since the mystical Garbo was usually referred to only by her last name, Selznick promoted his discovery as "Valli." (The Italian
actress eventually met her Swedish counterpart at the house of director Otto Preminger. Valli was told that her shoes creaked.)
Once negotiations with Garbo for a screen comeback fell through, Selznick cast Valli in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1947 courtroom drama The Paradine Case. In the film, Valli plays Mrs. Paradine, a woman accused of murdering her blind husband for his money. She is defended by a lawyer (Gregory Peck) who falls under her spell. Also in the cast were Charles Laughton, Ann Todd, Charles Coburn, Louis Jourdan, and Ethel Barrymore
Valli later recalled that when she arrived at the studio and saw fellow stars Peck and Laughton, "I couldn’t stand still. I was shaking all over. But they were very kind and helped me out." Valli also found Hitchcock simpatico, even though he was more concerned with the technical aspects of the film than with his actors.
Ultimately, its name director and illustrious cast notwithstanding, the heavy-handed Paradine Case failed to impress critics and filmgoers alike. The film was a dismal box-office failure, losing Selznick most of the — at the time highly impressive — US$4 million invested in it.
Valli’s next vehicle, on loan to RKO, was even worse. In Irving Pichel’s The Miracle of the Bells, she is a Polish burlesque queen who becomes a Hollywood star, and then dies after playing Joan of Arc. Following her death, a miracle happens. Or was it just a miraculous coincidence? Told in flashbacks, a practice quite common in the 1940s, The Miracle of the Bells lacked intelligence, honesty, and box-office appeal — in spite of the support of Frank Sinatra (woefully miscast as a priest) and Fred MacMurray.
Valli’s subsequent vehicle, for Selznick’s Vanguard Films and RKO, was the minor noirish melodrama Walk Softly, Stranger. Directed by Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins), Valli plays an embittered wheelchair-bound heiress who is seduced by a gambler (fellow Selznick contractee Joseph Cotten) trying to start a new life in her small Midwestern town.
Despite an absurdly saccharine finale, Walk Softly, Stranger is a low-key but surprisingly — if modestly — effective mélange of psychological drama, romantic melodrama, crime thriller, and social commentary, at times reminiscent of both Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and George Stevens‘ A Place in the Sun. In what amounts to a supporting — and underwritten — role, Valli does remarkably well, even managing to withstand a teary-eyed closeup at the end of the film without looking ridiculous. Curiously, Walk Softly, Stranger would remain in the can for more than two years. (In 1948, the iconoclastic Howard Hughes took over RKO. That may explain the film’s late release date.)
Thus, filmgoers next saw Selznick’s Italian import in the Anglo-American co-production The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed from a screenplay by Graham Greene, The Third Man stars Valli, Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles (who found the actress "the sexiest thing you ever saw in your life"), and Trevor Howard. Shot in both Vienna and London, this Selznick-Alexander Korda film noir would become Valli’s most widely known film.
As Anna Schmidt, a mysterious Czech refugee living in the Russian quarter of post-war Vienna, Valli is the only one of the labyrinthine thriller’s four principals to imbue her character with a touch of complexity. Still absorbed by the memory of her supposedly dead lover, the racketeer Harry Lime (Welles), Anna is a woman drained of feeling. Yet, inside her lies a simmering volcano kept from exploding by an airtight lid. "She did not, in that film, have a lot to do — by and large Graham Greene’s women don’t have a lot to do," wrote novelist Howard Jacobson in The [London] Independent, "though what she did no one who saw it could forget."
One such instance comes at the very end of The Third Man. Following Harry Lime’s burial, Joseph Cotten’s American writer Holly Martins — Lime’s killer and a man very much in love with Anna — waits in a cemetery lane lined with trees. Seen at a distance, Anna slowly walks toward the camera to the accompaniment of Anton Karas‘ zither music. She walks past Martins, completely ignoring his presence, and disappears from view. All Valli has to do is walk, but her emotionless face — reminiscent of the blank mask displayed by Selznick’s beloved Garbo at the end of Queen Christina — belies her pain, anger, and loneliness. (Greene’s original story had a more hopeful ending than the one ultimately used in the film.)
Following this box-office and critical success (The Third Man brought Carol Reed a Best Director Academy Award nomination in 1950), Valli was sent back to more mundane filmmaking at RKO.
In the 1950 adventure tale The White Tower, she was cast as a mountaineer struggling to beat Lloyd Bridges‘ ex-Nazi to the top of the Alpine peak that had killed her father. Glenn Ford and Claude Rains co-starred. Producer Adrian Scott and director Edward Dmytryk were supposed to have made the film — and the Crossfire (1947) duo might have been able to make something of Paul Jarrico’s routine screenplay — but they ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee and were replaced, respectively, by Sid Rogell and Ted Tetzlaff.
Also in 1950, after extensive retakes Walk Softly, Stranger was finally released — only to be panned by The New York Times and to become the biggest moneyloser of the year for RKO (US$775,000 in the red). At that time, Selznick allowed Valli to break her contract. (Film historian David Shipman says that Selznick himself dropped her.)
Valli returned to Europe in 1951 to star opposite Jean Marais in Yves Allégret’s Les Miracles n’ont lieu qu’une fois / Miracles Only Happen Once, the story of two enamored students who, after being separated by the war, are reunited ten years later only to discover that they have changed. Variety felt the actress did "a fine job of etching the young, ardent girl and the disillusioned woman." That same year, she returned to Italy to co-star with Amedeo Nazzari and Jean-Pierre Aumont in Gianni Franciolini’s L’Ultimo incontro / Last Meeting, a drama about a married woman blackmailed into becoming a part-time prostitute.
After refusing to attend an audition for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Five Fingers (1952) because she hated flying, Valli’s Hollywood career was completely over. (Danielle Darrieux, who apparently didn’t have a problem with airplanes, took on the role in the successful thriller.) The 31-year-old Valli officially separated from de Mejo, and settled in Italy for good.
To blame Valli’s alleged lack of star quality for her disappointing Hollywood career would be not only unfair but also myopic — considering that she was to remain a star (or at least a star supporting player) in her native Italy and elsewhere for decades. If at the beginning of her Hollywood career Garbo had been miscast in mediocre vehicles at independent or failing studios (RKO went belly up in the mid-1950s), she quite likely would have floundered as well. Also, the late 1940s and early 1950s were a time of upheavals for the U.S. film industry, with studios releasing their contract players and a growing number of moviegoers staying home to watch TV. In fact, a number of other foreign actresses failed to hit the big time in those days — even though a few of those continued to appear in American movies — including Viveca Lindfors and Marta Toren from Sweden, Micheline Presle and Corinne Calvet from France, Ann Todd from Britain, Katy Jurado from Mexico, and Pier Angeli and Valentina Cortese from Italy.
Back in Italy, the second stage of Valli’s local career started rather inauspiciously. Critical and/or box-office disappointments such as the melodramatic Il Mondo la condanna (The World Condemns Her), also with Nazzari; Mario Soldati’s unsuspenseful adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Stranger’s Hand, which reunited Valli with her Third Man co-star Trevor Howard; the "extremely tedious" (as per the Monthly Film Bulletin) Les Amants de Tolède / The Lovers of Toledo; and Siamo donne / We, the Women - in which she plays herself "with both delicacy and self-parody" (as per David Shipman) in one of the film’s episodes — did little to enhance her reputation.
Things were looking bleak when Luchino Visconti offered her the lead role in Senso (1954), from a novel by Camillo Boito. Set in mid-1800s Venice during the Risorgimento, the film revolves around a Venetian countess (Valli) torn between nationalistic feelings and an adulterous love for an officer (Farley Granger) of the occupying Austrian forces. Her passionate performance is considered by some the apex of her career, and won her a Best Actress Crystal Star from the French Film Academy. (Senso’s loss at the 1954 Venice Film Festival — the Golden Lion for Best Film went to Renato Castellani’s Romeo and Juliet — caused a furor.)
According to Shipman, upon its release Senso was cut for political reasons in Italy. In the US and Britain, the film — renamed The Wanton Countess — was drastically shortened and poorly dubbed into English. (The original version was shown on Turner Classic Movies in June 2005.)
As her career was beginning to pick up steam, Valli became involved in a sex-and-drugs scandal following the mysterious death of a 20-year-old woman named Wilma Montesi, whose body was found on a beach near Rome in April 1953. The police — under the leadership of far-right Christian Democrat politician Mario Scelba — ruled the death an accident, but accusations spread by both the media and left-wing politicians turned the young woman’s death into a national cause celèbre.
According to those stories, Montesi died after taking part in an orgy involving heavy drugs. A prime suspect was found in the person of jazz musician and film composer Piero Piccioni, the son of a former Christian Democrat foreign minister, and a friend of Valli’s former husband. (As Piero Morgan, he had composed the score for Il Mondo la condanna.) Moreover, rumor had it that he was also Valli’s lover. The actress had to testify that at the time of Montesi’s death, Piccioni was suffering from tonsillitis and a fever 200 miles south of Rome, in a villa in Amalfi where they were staying as guests of producer Carlo Ponti.
According to John Francis Lane’s July 2004 Piccioni obit in The [London] Guardian, "those who suffered most [from the scandal] were Piccioni’s father Attilio, whose political career ended abruptly, and Alida Valli, who had stuck to her alibi and then had to rebuild her acting career from scratch." Indeed, Valli was to stay away from the screen until 1957. (That was also the year the Montesi case came to a close, without a satisfying resolution as to the cause of the young woman’s death.)
In 1956, Valli made her stage debut, starring under the direction of her future husband Giancarlo Zagni at Palermo’s Teatro Biondo in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, William Archibald’s The Innocents (from Henry James‘ The Turn of the Screw), and Pirandello’s L’uomo, la bestia e la virtù / The Man, the Beast and Virtue. She toured Italy in the latter two, and the following year played opposite Burgess Meredith in a production of Pirandello’s Henry IV at Philadelphia’s Erlanger Theater. She was to appear in more than thirty plays in the next four decades.