Film Studies: Alida showed us how to walk on by

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This is the ending to Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949). The camera is placed in the middle of the drive. Holly is standing off to one side. Anna wears a shabby coat and a trilby hat, and the music builds - Anton Karas on the zither, the music that helped make the movie famous. Every atom of sentiment in that very sentimental form, the movies, says that Anna will hesitate, say something, and permit the romance with Holly to begin. It's all going to be OK. Except that she never looks at him, but just keeps on walking, past the camera. That was Alida Valli as Anna and when I was eight, seeing The Third Man for the first time, it seemed a harsh, unkind, but grown-up thing for her to do - the first time I could recall such behaviour in a movie.

It is still a famous moment in film, even if Graham Greene (who wrote the script) did allow the possibility in the subsequent novella that perhaps Holly and Anna met up outside the cemetery and were last seen hand-in-hand. The actress was called Valli then, as if the single name would remind the public of Garbo. That was the strategy of David O Selznick, the American producer who had found her in Italy and shipped her west for a great career. He believed she was as lovely as Garbo, a judgement he shared with Benito Mussolini.

Truth to tell, Valli was a little past discovery. She had been born in 1921 in Pula, which is now in Croatia. So she was 27 or so by the time she reached Hollywood. She had been acting in Italian films throughout the war without making much impact. When Selznick signed her up, he had to invest money in dental and cosmetic surgery for her, and he found that she was anxious of possible fascist connections being publicised. Nevertheless, Selznick did all he could and he cast her as the femme fatale who ruins the lawyer defending her (Gregory Peck) in Hitchcock's The Paradine Case, before persuading Carol Reed to take her on for The Third Man.

There were a few other American films - as a movie star who may have been a saint in The Miracle of the Bells; in the Alps in The White Tower; as a crippled girl in Walk Softly, Stranger. But she was too solemn, or too little gifted with charm. She was serious, and when she smiled it was not convincing. Pier Angeli, eleven years younger, and prettier, replaced her in the early Fifties as the most likely Italian girl in Hollywood.

So Alida Valli went back to Europe and got on with being an actress. It was the right move, for in 1954 she got the part of the countess who has a disastrous affair with a cavalry officer (Farley Granger) in Luchino Visconti's Senso. Nowadays, that looks like one of Visconti's best films and an unremitting tragedy well suited to Valli's sombre nature.

And so she began to be a character actress in Michelangelo Antonioni's Il Grido, in The Sea Wall for René Clément, in Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face, in Henri Colpi's Une Aussi Longue Absence, in Claude Chabrol's Ophelia; in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Oedipus Rex; in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem. By then, she was unrecognisable. She had put on weight and she had iron-gray hair. But her face had settled into a tragic stare not easily imitated or altered. It was said that she became a little eccentric, and she had her fair share of half-crazy old women to play.

Well, she is dead now, and there are only the few great scenes she left behind. She was the last survivor from The Third Man, the last person who could tell stories about how the picture was made and how the cat had sat on Orson Welles's polished shoes. The cats in Vienna knew charm when they sniffed it. Or was it that Orson used catnip to polish his shoes? Well, now it's too late. There's no one left to remember what happened, and no one who asked Carol Reed, "Don't I stop?" And he told her, "No, darling, just keep walking."