Alain Delon, an iconic figure in the 20th century French cinema, was a movie star who instinctively exemplified screen minimalism. His signature role, as a spectral hitman in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 underworld classic Le Samourai, was so coolly considered and without extraneous detail that the movie attained an existential hum. As a schoolboy Delon was advised to enter the Catholic priesthood because of his aptitude in religious studies, and while he declined there remained an air of ascetic contemplation to his work, whether playing a gangster or a romantic lead. The camera, other characters, and eventually the audience, all came to him like supplicants
Born in the suburbs of Paris in 1935, Delon had a knockabout early life. He didn’t take to the discipline of various boarding schools or the French Navy (he served in Indochina), and after he was dishonourably discharged in 1956 had a slew of temporary jobs before a trip with an actor pal to the Cannes Film Festival earnt him a screen test and a contract. If that sounds like a starlet’s origin tale, it’s worth noting that Delon was remarkably handsome. But from his screen debut in 1957 onwards he instinctively moved towards a new iteration of the leading man, whether self-destructive and self-aware in Luchino Visconti’s working class study Rocco and His Brothers in 1960, or tinged with modern disaffection in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse two years later.
Beginning in the mid-1960s his tilts at English-language cinema and Hollywood fame were periodic and ill-fated – the last straw was The Concorde… Airport ’79 – but in Europe he was a box-office draw of the highest order for several decades and hugely influential on subsequent generations. “I based Chow Yun-fat’s performance, his style, his look, even the way he walked, on Delon in Le Samourai,” subsequently wrote Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo of his breakthrough feature, 1986’s A Better Tomorrow, and even though Delon drifted away from acting to tend his business interests from Swiss comfort in the 1990s he still retains a fascinating body of work that crosses the charismatic with the coiled. His less was not simply more, it was an incantation.
SBS on Demand has a double bill of exemplary Alain Delon performances in two fine French films.
1960 was Alain Delon’s breakout year. His performances in Rocco and His Brothers and Plein Soleil, a thriller directed by Rene Clement (1952’s Forbidden Games), drew a line in the sand between the previous generation of post-World War II actors and the 25-year-old newcomer. Plein Soleil was not only of the moment upon release, it’s readily familiar now because it’s adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, a cruelly compelling text that would subsequently be adapted once more in 1999 by Anthony Minghella with Matt Damon mirroring Delon in the role of Tom Ripley, a young man whose acquisitive ambition plunges him into coldly calculated murder.
“He has his own and I have other people’s,” quips Tom early on, referring to money and his traveling companion in 1950s Italy, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet). The two are seemingly dilettante expatriates playing games with each other – the struggling Tom has been offered a reward to steer the privileged Philippe home to America, and the impetuous scion toys with satisfying his new best friend. Tom plays the jester, equerry and the troubadour, distracting Philippe from his fiancée Marge (Marie Laforet), but the roles become psychologically invasive when Tom starts wearing his host’s clothes. Befitting a sun-drenched noir without shadows, they’re open about deceiving each other, and at first they also joke about Tom killing Philippe and assuming his identity. At first.
Delon has a boyish menace – a precise energy that can suddenly abate, which Clement sharply punctuates with moments of violence that shock Tom when he commits them but which he soon swiftly covers up without self-recrimination. The character’s budding forgery skills become rituals, and similarly even when pretending to be Philippe he gives a performance he doesn’t quite understand. “The best,” he insists when ordering a drink, but Tom is never quite satisfied. Clement repeatedly invokes the image of a boatman delivering Tom to an island retreat, suggesting a soul being conveyed to the afterlife. It’s the perfect image for a movie where Delon is always adding and subtracting from Tom’s ledger.
Un Flic was the third feature Alain Delon made with Jean-Pierre Melville, and if it’s the lesser of the trio it’s still more than worthy given that the preceding pair, Le Samourai and 1970’s Le Cercle Rouge, are both essential titles in the crime film canon. Here Delon is Chief Inspector Edouard Coleman, a Parisian police detective calmly circling the city at night as he trawls for information and visits crime scenes. “On our way,” he unfailingly declares with the receipt of each assignment, and his detachment allows him to be brutally effective and scarily enigmatic. The threat that Delon conveys with Edouard is not merely of overt violence, but unknowing evaluation. He might, or might not, do anything.
The film’s ominous momentum is established from the opening tracking shot, when a group of bank robbers led by nightclub proprietor Simon (Richard Crenna) pull up outside a seaside branch on a wintry morning. Afterwards they leave like ghosts, disappearing into the stormy sea mist, ultimately setting them on a collision course with Edouard. That sense of sadly intertwined fate is a Melville hallmark, as are the fedoras on the men, pungent bit players from the criminal milieu such as a trio of veteran pickpockets, and assignations whose dialogue has the sparseness of flint sparks.
In what would be his final film, Melville keeps obscured the knowledge Edouard, Simon and the woman who links them, Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), have of each other. On their own each is calmly effective – even Cathy serves as an angel of death to rid Simon of a compromised associate – but together they’re held in check as if magnetically attracted to each other. The possibilities of Delon and Deneuve together are underplayed, with Melville instead focusing on a long heist sequence that revolved around a helicopter shadowing a train (in the pre-CGI era both are shot with models at various points) and various gadgets. But what endures is Delon’s authority: Edouard is not some world-weary professional, he’s a tamped down force of nature.