'The Third Man' Actress Alida Valli, 84

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 24, 2006

Alida Valli, 84, one of the exquisite beauties of Italian cinema who starred in Carol Reed's "The Third Man" (1949) and Luchino Visconti's "Senso" (1954) and more than 100 other films, died April 22 in Rome of undisclosed causes.

Ms. Valli proved her versatility as a long-suffering heroine in costume dramas and in the escapist "white telephone" films -- named for their opulence -- championed by Benito Mussolini. As a convent-bound girl led astray in "Manon Lescaut" (1940), based on a novel by Abbe Prevost, she was "not only tremendously beautiful but emotionally sincere," a New York Times film critic wrote.

In 1946, Hollywood producer David O. Selznick signed Ms. Valli to a contract. Groomed for a major English-language career, she was given a screen billing with just her surname -- Valli -- to recall the European glamour of "Garbo."

However, she was plunked in mediocre fare and, with a language barrier, had a catatonic presence that did not showcase the emotion she brought to her earlier Italian period.

American audiences yawned at Alfred Hitchcock's "The Paradine Case" (1947), in which she was an alleged murderess defended by Gregory Peck, and "The Miracle of the Bells" (1948), in which she played a dead actress whose story is told in flashback.

With Selznick's approval, Ms. Valli left for England and was cast in "The Third Man" as the devoted lover of a racketeer named Harry Lime (Orson Welles).

Set amid the black-market world of post-war Vienna, "The Third Man" has since become a classic of unremitting political cynicism, aided by an unexpected zither soundtrack and unforgettable, powerful scenes.

One of the best is the ending shot in a cemetery, which shows Ms. Valli walking directly past the bumbling American hero (Joseph Cotten), a pulp novelist who, despite all evidence to the contrary, wants to view Ms. Valli's character as a damsel in distress.

Everyone associated with "The Third Man" was elevated by it. Ms. Valli followed with a handful of European classics, including "Senso," a European-set period piece of romance and betrayal, and Michelangelo Antonioni's "Il Grido," or "The Outcry" (1957), as a weary and impoverished woman who rejects her working-class lover.

Times film critic A.H. Weiler, reviewing "Il Grido," wrote that Ms. Valli "conveys her pain, despair and emotional conflict in sharp, convincing style."

Of Austrian Italian lineage, Alida Maria Laura von Altenburger was born May 31, 1921, in Pola, Italy (her birthplace is now part of Croatia). Her father, a journalist, moved the family to Como in 1928, and she later enrolled at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, a film school in Rome started by Mussolini.

Onscreen since age 14, Ms. Valli had her first starring role in Max Neufeld's comedy "Mille Lire al Mese" (1939) as a beauty with too many worshipers. She won an acting award at the Venice Film Festival for "Piccolo Mondo Antico" (1941), about a woman traumatized by her child's death; played a counterrevolutionary in a version of Ayn Rand's anti-Communist novel "We the Living" (1942); and had the title role in a filmed version of Balzac's "Eugenia Grandet" (1947).

With the Nazi push into Italy, she briefly left filmmaking to avoid recruitment into propaganda efforts, she said.

For a time during the war, Ms. Valli hid in a friend's apartment. Others who joined her were the jazz composer and painter Oscar de Mejo, who became Ms. Valli's husband, and Piero Piccioni, a pianist and composer.

Piccioni, the son of Italy's foreign minister, became a crucial figure in Ms. Valli's life in the mid-1950s. When he was alleged to have participated in a drug-fueled orgy near Rome that left one young woman dead, Ms. Valli, who had been recently divorced, said that she and Piccioni were staying at a villa in Capri at the time of the death. This was a factor in his acquittal at trial.

During that period, Ms. Valli started a theater company to stay busy when film work lagged. She eventually made nearly 80 additional movies and television dramas in France, Italy and Spain, appearing in films by Gillo Pontecorvo ("The Wide Blue Road," 1957), Claude Chabrol ("Ophelia," 1963), Pier Paolo Pasolini ("Oedipus Rex," 1967) and several low-budget horror films by Dario Argento, including "Suspiria" (1977).

Ms. Valli worked three times with director Bernardo Bertolucci, memorably as an enigmatic mistress in "Strategia del Ragno," or "The Spider's Stratagem" (1970), based on a story by Jorge Luis Borges.

In recent years, Ms. Valli was reportedly living alone in an apartment in Rome and qualified for a state pension geared to entertainers in financial distress.

Survivors include two sons from her marriage.

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