Valentina Cortese, Italian Film Actress, Dies at 96

Valentina Cortese, Italian Film Actress, Dies at 96

The Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck signed her to a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox in 1949 after seeing her portray a gypsy in Gregory Ratoff’s “Black Magic” (1949), an adaptation of an Alexandre Dumas novel, starring Orson Welles. (Mr. Zanuck tweaked Ms. Cortese’s name to make it “Cortesa,” to sound an aristocratic note; she reverted to Cortese when she left his stable.)

Early reviewers described her gamine beauty and enigmatic Mediterranean charm as perfect for ingénue roles in the postwar era of noir films. She was cast in three films in quick succession in the first two years of her contract, all of them opposite top male stars.

She was the wary but softhearted saloon singer in “Malaya,” with Mr. Tracy and Mr. Stewart as rubber smugglers in the Japanese-occupied Pacific islands during World War II, and she played a truck-stop fortune teller in “Thieves’ Highway,” opposite Mr. Cobb and Mr. Conte, enemies in a cutthroat world of California produce truckers.

In her best-known film from the period, “The House on Telegraph Hill,” she portrayed a Polish concentration camp survivor who enters the United States with the citizenship papers of a camp internee who died, and then meets a man (Mr. Basehart) who wants to marry her and kill her.

After returning to Italy, Ms. Cortese performed for many years at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, in highly regarded productions of works by Chekhov, Shaw, Pirandello and other European playwrights.

She and the theater’s founder, Giorgio Strehler, entered a long-term relationship after the collapse of her marriage, she said in her autobiography.

Besides the theater, she appeared in Italian television. Her other film credits include Mr. Antonioni’s “Le Amiche” (1955), Mr. Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits” (1965), Franco Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972) and Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988).

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