17 February 2018

Raffaele ‘Raf’ Vallone – actor

Movie star who had four careers

Raffaele Vallone, pictured in a scene from the Giuseppe de Santis neo-realist movie Bitter Rice
Raffaele Vallone, pictured in a scene from the Giuseppe
de Santis neorealist movie Bitter Rice
Raffaele Vallone, the stage and screen actor who was born on this day in 1916 in Tropea, Calabria, was remarkable for having embarked on three starkly different career paths even before he made his acting debut.

Usually known as Raf, he grew up from the age of two in Turin, where his father, an ambitious young lawyer, had relocated to set up a legal practice.  A natural athlete, he was a fine footballer – so good, in fact, that at the age of 14 he was snapped up by Torino FC, who made him an apprentice professional.

Compared with the average working man, he was handsomely paid as a footballer, and he won a medal as part of the Torino team crowned Coppa Italia winners in 1936.  Yet he quickly became bored with football and enrolled at Turin University, where he studied Law and Philosophy with a view to joining his father’s firm.

Ultimately, he baulked at the idea of becoming a lawyer, too, and instead joined the staff of the left-wing daily newspaper L’Unità, where he rose quickly to be head of the culture pages, at the same time establishing himself as a drama and film critic for the Turin daily La Stampa.

It was in his capacity as a journalist that he was invited to meet Giuseppe De Santis, the film director, who wanted him to help with background information for a new film in the growing neorealist genre called Bitter Rice, about a woman working in the rice fields in the Po Valley.

Vallone in his days as a young footballer with Torino FC
Vallone in his days as a young footballer
with Torino FC
This was a time when, partly out of budget restrictions, partly out of a desire to cast real people rather than rely solely on established stars, directors were weighing up everyone they met as a potential actor.

De Santis was immediately impressed with Vallone, who had served with the anti-Fascist resistance during the Second World War, both for his depth of knowledge but also for the passion of his views, particularly on the subject of exploitation of workers.

The director also noted Vallone’s physical stature and his rough-hewn features and decided he would be perfect for the role of a soldier from peasant roots, competing with Vittorio Gassman for the love of another relative unknown, Silvana Mangano. In fact, not only was Vallone an educated man, his mother was descended from nobility, which only illustrates how appearances can be deceptive.

The film, made in 1949, was a box office hit, commercially one of the biggest successes of the neorealist era.  Unlike some of the unknowns plucked from real life, discarded after one movie, Vallone went on to enjoy a successful career.

He worked again with De Santis in 1950 in  Non c'e Pace tra gli Ulivi (There’s No Peace Among the Olive Trees), playing a shepherd who antagonised local Mafiosi, and in Rome 11 O'Clock (1952), based on a true story of a rickety staircase that collapsed under a queue of unemployed girls hoping for a job interview.

Raf Vallone (left) in a scene from Il Cammino della Speranza, in which he starred with his future wife, Elena Varzi (right)
Raf Vallone (left) in a scene from Il Cammino della Speranza,
in which he starred with his future wife, Elena Varzi (right)
In Pietro Germi’s Il Cammino della Speranza (The Road to Hope, 1951) Vallone starred alongside Elena Varzi, whom he later married and with whom he had three children.

The popularity of neorealist films declined as Italy’s shattered post-War economy began to recover, when audiences decided they no longer wished to be reminded of the hard times they had left behind. For a while, Vallone’s career stalled.

Ever eager to try different things, however, Vallone now set his sights on the stage.  He travelled to Paris and London, where he was inspired in particular by Peter Brook’s production of the Arthur Miller play A View From the Bridge, in which he felt the role of the Italian-American longshoreman Eddie Carbone, tormented by a sexual fixation with a niece, was made for him.

He had the chance to play the character when Brook took the play on tour to Paris. Vallone’s performances at the Theatre Antoine, where the play ran for 550 nights, were frequently received with ovations from the audience, and earned him the same part in Sidney Lumet’s 1961 film version of the play, which he shot in both English and French.

That movie helped cement Vallone’s popularity with American movie-going audiences.  During that time he also gave well received supporting roles in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (1960) and Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961), both co-starring Sophia Loren. Other actresses he co-starred with on included Gina Lollobrigida, Anna Magnani, Melina Mercouri and Simone Signoret.

In his later years, Vallone tended to play only cameos, such as in The Italian Job (1969) and The Godfather Part III (1990). He also directed for the stage, even trying his hand at opera with a production of Bellini’s Norma, with Renata Scotto in the lead role.

Tropea in Calabria enjoys a spectacular cliff-top location
Tropea in Calabria enjoys a spectacular cliff-top location
Travel tip:

Tropea, where Vallone was born, is for obvious reasons not a resort that attracts many holidaymakers other than Italians. Situated on the western coast of Calabria, the region that occupies the toe and the instep of the Italian peninsula, it is more than 400km (250 miles) south of Naples and though relatively close to Sicily – Messina is just 112km (70 miles) away – it tends to be a place flown over en route.  Yet it has much to recommend it, from its beautiful soft sandy beaches to the spectacular cliff-top setting of its historic old town, with its maze of narrow streets and sleepy southern Italian feel.  On a stretch of scenic coastline known as the Costa degli Dei – the Coast of the Gods – it is regarded by some regular visitors as one of Italy’s hidden gems.

Submerged rice fields are a feature of the countryside around Vercelli in the Po Valley
Submerged rice fields are a feature of the countryside
around Vercelli in the Po Valley
Travel tip:

The rice fields of the Po Valley represent the largest rice production area in the whole of Europe.  The Po Valley, or Po Plain, is vast, stretching about 650km (400 miles) from the Western Alps to the Adriatic Sea, bordered by the Alps to the north and the Apennines to the south, with an area of 46,000 sq km (18,000 sq mi).  Rice production is mainly centred on the province of Vercelli, between Milan and Turin, in which the town of Vercelli is surrounded in the summer months by submerged paddy fields, for which water is supplied by a canal from the Po River.  Rice has been grown in the area since the 15th century.

More reading:

Silvana Mangano - actress whose big break came with Bitter Rice

Vittorio De Sica and the neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves

The earthy beauty of Oscar-winner Anna Magnani

Also on this day:

1600: The death of  'heretic' philosopher Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake

1653: The birth of composer Arcangelo Corelli

1796: The birth of composer Giovanni Pacini

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