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The first rate Italian actress,Valentina Cortese, died on July 10 in Milan, the city where she  was born 96 years ago.

Although she never achieved the level of stardom in America that her contemporaries Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobridgida did, she made a handful of films which will keep in name among the greats.

Having survived a difficult childhood (she was raised by her maternal grandparents from age 6) Cortese began her career when she was 16, and attained stardom in Europe by the late 1940s. She made her first English language movie, The Glass Mountain, in Great Britain in 1948. Hollywood took notice, and a seven-year contract at 20th Century Fox soon followed.

It was not a good fit.  Although Cortese was cast in some creditable pictures, she did not feel at home in Hollywood, and returned to Europe in 1952. But the pictures she made still stand out.

She played a saloon singer in 1949’s Malaya, a saga of rubber smugglers starring Spencer Tracy and James Stewart. Perhaps her most remembered movie from this period is the 1951 thriller House on Telegraph Hill in which she plays a concentration camp survivor who impersonates another woman, and learns to her surprise that she has come into a fortune in inheritance. Playing her suspect husband is Richard Basehart, who in fact became Valentina’s husband in 1951.

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We especially like another of Cortese’s outing from this period, 1949’s Thieves Highway, a solid film noir about the travails of California fruit truckers, costarring Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte. The director is Jules Dassin, who much admired Cortese. She plays a soft-hearted truckstop floozy (see photo below) with both style and seductiveness.

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But, as Joe says, see her in Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night, and you’ll know what a great actress she was. The 1973 picture is a delight — a kind-hearted, almost whimsical film about the inner workings of movie-making complete with vain but dedicated actors and an unsure director (played by Truffaut himself).

Valentinia is superb as an aging prima donna who has trouble remembering lines and hitting marks. She keep opening closet doors rather than the exit doors called for in the script. (There she is below pondering her lines and downing a glass of bubbly as fortification.)

Valentina’s is indulgently treated by fellow cast members, particularly by a very understanding leading man warmly played by French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont.

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For her performance in Day For Night, Cortese won a best supporting actor Oscar nomination.  Well deserved.

Ciao, Valentina.

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