An Alain Delon retrospective

One of the biggest movie stars to emerge from Europe in the 60s (and arguably the most handsome!), is French actor Alain Delon. Although he could have built a successful career on the back of his looks alone, Delon showed that he was more than just a pretty face, appearing in a number of critically acclaimed films for the next two decades. While he didn’t have much emotive range, he was fortunate to work with some of the leading directors of his generation, who found the right material to suit his brooding intensity.

I have been a fan of his for several years, although I had watched just three of his films. I set about amending that deficiency in the past few weeks by catching up on some of the biggest hits of his career, and of that period. I am very grateful that he skipped the rather pretentious and self-indulgent French New Wave movies (my opinion!) and went for watchable, entertaining commercial cinema. Here’s the definitive list for the Alain Delon fan:

Purple Noon/Plein Soleil (1960): René Clément’s thriller opens without any exposition, in media res, with Phillipe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) and Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) spending yet another day enjoying a carefree life in Rome. Nino Rota’s playful score keeps us company as the two friends go about drinking and carousing in the city, before setting off on a yacht trip with Phillipe’s girlfriend Marge. One can’t help but be captivated by Ronet’s charming smile and Delon’s breathtaking good looks, but pretty soon, the layers peel off to reveal the ugly truth…Ripley is a parasite, with his sights set on Greenleaf’s money, his girlfriend and his way of life…and Greenleaf enjoys teasing and feeding Tom’s barely hidden desires, little realizing that he is playing into the hands of a cold-blooded psychopath. This was the first screen adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, although audiences are likely to be more familiar with Anthony Minghella’s outstanding 1999 adaptation starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, with Damon telegraphing Ripley’s covetousness and underlying inferiority complex in a masterclass of acting. But overall, the French version was a more engaging and satisfying experience, in spite of the controversial ending that deviated from the novel.

Alain Delon plays psychopath Tom Ripley in René Clément’s Plein Soleil/Purple Noon (1960)

Rocco and His Brothers (1960): If Purple Noon wasn’t enough to establish Delon as an international heartthrob, this family saga from Italian neorealist master Luchino Visconti sealed the deal a few months later. Coincidentally also featuring a score by Nino Rota, this dark, B&W melodrama is very different tonally and thematically from the sun-drenched Purple Noon, and served to showcase a vulnerable side to Delon…perhaps the only time he’s played a role quite as clean cut. A star was born and Delon never looked back. I’ve covered this film last October in my posts about Italian post-war films.

L’Eclisse (1962): The last of Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy about love, this Italian film featured the impossibly stunning pairing of Delon and Monica Vitti, playing lovers in a match made in heaven which eventually loses steam for reasons not overtly explained, but decodable as existential angst. Very much a product of its time and place, along with films like Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, it expressed the ennui and spiritual emptiness that went hand-in-hand with affluence and materialism. To be honest, when I watched this film a few years ago, I was less concerned about the underlying meaning of the film and just happy to be hypnotized by the sheer on-screen star power of this duo. I do need to re-watch this film to better appreciate it in its entirety.

The Leopard/Il gattopardo (1963): Luchino Visconti broke free from his neorealist past and created this sumptuous historical epic, set in 19th century Sicily, featuring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale. Running at more than 3 hours, it is an epic film in every sense of the word, involving a cast of hundreds, elaborate set pieces and incredible production design, while also serving as a commentary on the social and political upheaval of that time. Burt Lancaster as the respected nobleman, Don Fabrizio Corbera and Delon as his opportunistic nephew Tancredi, represent the two divergent moralities at play. The nearly half-hour long ballroom scene at the end, brilliantly contrasts the outward opulence of the elite with the emptiness experienced by Don Fabrizio, as explained in this appreciation and accompanying video from Cinémathèque Française.

The Last Adventure/Les Aventuriers (1967): This film is based on a novel written by José Giovanni, a convicted criminal and murderer, who incredibly was released from prison after just 11 years and went on to have a successful career as a novelist and filmmaker! I guess this sort of thing was possible in the 60’s. The film is a bit uneven, but I include it in this list because of the on-screen chemistry among the three leads – Delon, Italian actor Lino Ventura and Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus (who in real life would go on to marry Sidney Poitier). Delon and Ventura play friends who lead a carefree existence pursuing their dreams. At the beginning of the film, Delon’s character Manu, is practicing for a stunt which involves flying a vintage biplane through the Arc de Triomphe. Ventura’s character, Roland is building a drag racing car in a workshop situated in the junkyard he owns. Into their lives comes a pretty young girl Laetitia (played by Shimkus), looking to buy scrap metal for an abstract art exhibition she is putting together. Some time later, when their respective endeavors all end in failure, they embark on an adventure to the African coast to search for a plane that crashed in the sea carrying stolen gold and jewels. At this point, the plot starts to lose its coherence; the middle act feels like a clip from a vacation video, whereas the final act switches back to action movie pace. And so, we end up with this Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, stitched together from different parts, but intriguing nevertheless. Two years later, Lino Ventura would seal his place in cinematic history with his starring role in Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic suspense-drama about the French resistance.

Le Samouraï (1967): Jean-Pierre Melville’s neo-noir crime film served as the ultimate Alain Delon vehicle and established the iconic visual of Delon in a trench coat and fedora. In fact, there have been as many articles and blogs written about the sartorial style of Delon’s character Jef Costello, as about the film itself. This spoiler-filled article published a couple of years ago delves into incredible detail, including a delicious description of Delon’s hat as a “self-edged fedora in gray wool felt with a wide black ribbed grosgrain silk ribbon”. This was Melville’s first colour production, although the director has used the palette sparingly, instead taking a minimalist approach in keeping with the film’s noir roots. Delon plays a professional hitman who is on the run from the police after his latest contract killing. The film features Delon’s wife Nathalie in her first acting role.

Delon as assassin Jef Costello in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967)

The Swimming Pool/La Piscine (1969): Directed by Jacques Deray, this is one of my favourite Delon films, a psychological thriller reuniting him with his Plein Soleil co-star Maurice Ronet, and featuring Romy Schneider (with whom he was briefly engaged). This is a film of two parts: the first two-thirds filled with the tensions of a romantic quadrangle, while the final act transforms unexpectedly into a cat-and-mouse thriller. Set in the French Riviera, the film is bathed in the beautiful colours of summertime, much in the same way as Plein Soleil. A wonderful piece of trivia I discovered is that Jane Birkin who plays Ronet’s teenage daughter is the person after whom the famous Birkin handbag is named; she is also the mother of award-winning actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. Luca Guadagnino’s 2016 film A Bigger Splash, is a splashier remake and well worth watching for Ralph Fiennes’ over-the-top rendition of Ronet’s character, but Matthias Schoenaerts can’t hold a candle to Delon’s screen presence.

From left to right: Romy Schneider, Alain Delon and Jane Birkin in Jacques Deray’s La Piscine/The Swimming Pool (1969)

Borsalino (1970): Not as well regarded by critics, but nevertheless immensely popular when it was released, this film brings together Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon as two street-smart criminals who lie, cheat and kill their way up the gangster food chain in Marseilles. It is based on the exploits of two real-life criminals of the 30’s, but facing issues with the use of their names, the producers chose to name the film for the Italian company that made the fedora hats which were popular during that period. Produced by Delon and helmed by his La Piscine director Jacques Deray, it was very much a vehicle designed to showcase its two stars, with Belmondo in particular turning on his roguish charm in virtually every scene, while Delon plays the straight-faced foil. Delon and director Deray worked together several more times, including on a 1974 sequel Borsalino and Co.

The Red Circle/Le Cercle Rouge (1970): Jean-Pierre Melville’s ensemble heist film is perhaps most famous for its half hour long jewellery store heist sequence which takes place in real time, very reminiscent of similar scenes in two other classic crime films of the 50’s, Riffifi and Big Deal on Madonna Street. As is standard for this sub-genre, much of the film is taken up with the planning of the heist and the assembling of the team, played by Italian thespian Gian Maria Volonté (the villain in two of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns), French acting-singing legend Yves Montand and Delon, with his star wattage hidden behind a moustache. Relentlessly on their trail is a veteran police inspector played by French actor-singer-comedian André Bourvil. I was particularly amused by a recurring visual gag during scenes set in a night club; on each occasion there’s a dance ensemble on stage, performing to a different theme, wearing matching costumes. Another scene with stunning visual impact involves Yves Montand’s character in the throes of withdrawal from alcohol addiction, and hallucinating spiders, lizards and rats in his room and on his body – all filmed with real creatures.

From left to right: Yves Montand, Gian Maria Volonté and Alain Delon in J-P Melville’s Le Circle Rouge/The Red Circle (1970)

A Cop/Un flic (1972): Yet another crime drama by Jean-Pierre Melville and yet again featuring a couple of extended robbery scenes, this film had Delon co-starring with American actors Richard Crenna and Michael Conrad, and French screen siren Catherine Deneuve. After playing a criminal in the previous two Melville films, Delon this time switches to the role of the cop. The film opens on a rainy wind-swept afternoon in a deserted coastal town. Four men in a car drive up to the branch of a bank just before closing time, commit an armed robbery and escape. Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Delon) is put on the case and while he is busy shaking down his informers, the gang commit another audacious robbery, stealing heroin from a courier on a moving train. Modern audiences will laugh at the obvious use of scale models for the exterior shots of the train and a helicopter; I was however captivated by the attention to detail of the sequence shot within the train. It eventually turns out that the gang leader Simon (Crenna) runs a night club (incidentally the same location used in Le Cercle Rouge) that is frequented by Commissaire Coleman, and the two men know each other; in fact the Commissaire suspects Simon’s involvement in the robberies and tries to draw Simon out into the open. Further complicating matters, both men are having an affair with the same woman, Catherine Deneuve’s icily beautiful Cathy. Ultimately, the film ends in the same way that many of Melville’s movies do…with the message that crime does not pay.

Mr. Klein/Monseiur Klein (1976): Directed by Joseph Losey, this film represents a significant change of scene for Delon from his steady diet of crime films. Delon plays an art dealer, Robert Klein who lives a luxurious life in occupied Paris during World War 2, purchasing art from Jews and selling them at a profit. One day, he is surprised to see a Jewish newsletter delivered to his doorstep. He goes to the Nazi-controlled police station to declare that he has mistakenly received the newsletter, that he is not a Jew, and that the newsletter was clearly intended for a different Robert Klein. The police tell him that they will look into the matter, but Delon decides to investigate for his own peace of mind. He meets people who are aware of another Robert Klein, but is unable to track him down. Meanwhile the police investigation appears to indicate there is no other Robert Klein, in which case they suspect that Delon’s Robert Klein must be a Jew. As events unfold, the film takes on some surreal twists and even the audience becomes unsure if Delon’s character has been set up, or if there has indeed been only one Robert Klein all along. The film was nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes and at the French Cesar Awards, it won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Delon.

Alain Delon also acted in a few international English-language productions, many of them crime, noir or action films of varying quality, and not always successful at the box office. Likewise, he appeared in a couple of spaghetti westerns – Red Sun and Zorro. And he continued to appear in French crime films through the 70s, all rather formulaic. Although I’m a fan, I’m not keen to sample any of these run-of-the-mill productions.

I do still have three films from his early career to watch. One is the 1958 period romance Christine, which brought him together with Romy Schneider, a well-established star by that time…they would fall in love and get engaged. The second is Mélodie en sous-sol from 1963, released internationally as Any Number Can Win – a crime caper headlined by veteran acting legend Jean Gabin. And finally, Les félins from 1964 in which Delon is paired on-screen with American actresses Jane Fonda and Lola Albright.

Having more than a dozen memorable films in one’s oeuvre is indeed creditable, with many considered classics of the crime genre. Check out Criterion, Amazon and AppleTV+.

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