Alain Delon, The Superstar Who Redefined French Cool, Turns 80

Alain Delon in Purple Noon
Photo by SNAP/REX Shutterstock

Jean-Paul Belmondo defined French cool at the beginning of the New Wave in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic “Breathless.” Actor Alain Delon and director Jean-Pierre Melville very consciously redefined it in 1967’s “Le Samourai,” in which Delon played a killer for hire always adjusting his fedora so it was just so. The actor was compared to James Dean.

But it was the hotly charismatic Belmondo who was more like Dean, who had been given to emotional outbursts in his performances. Delon was not only cool, he could also be cold.

Back when Delon was just starting out, he encountered David O. Selznick, perhaps while Selznick was shooting 1957’s “A Farewell to Arms” in Italy, or perhaps at Cannes. The producer offered him a contract provided that the nascent actor learn English, but Delon demurred.

His rejection of Hollywood helps explain why it may be hard for Americans to appreciate the extent of Delon’s fame during the 1960s and ’70s not just in France but in regions as diverse as Japan, Communist China (where a 1975 version of “Zorro” starring Delon as the popular hero was one of the first Western movies exhibited in the country after the Cultural Revolution) and Latin America.

In his best movies, such as Melville’s “Le Samourai” and Joseph Losey’s “Mr. Klein,” Delon was almost zen-like in his underplaying of the role, which served to draw viewers in and watch every detail of his performance.

In “Le Samourai” Melville, who was obsessed with American gangster and noir films, meticulously follows Delon’s assassin Jef Costello as he creates an alibi, knocks off the owner of a nightclub, makes it through a police lineup, finds that those who hired him have betrayed him and is hunted by the police. The plot is far, far less important than the style of the movie, the style of Delon’s portrayal of the killer. It is considered a masterpiece.

Articulating the nature of Delon’s extraordinary appeal, as crystallized in “Le Samourai,” can be difficult. Film scholar David Thomson described him as “the enigmatic angel of French film, only 32 in 1967, and nearly feminine. Yet so earnest and immaculate as to be thought lethal or potent. He was also close by then to the real French underworld.” Thomson added: “Delon is not so much a good actor as an astonishing presence — no wonder he was so thrilled to realize that the thing Melville most required was his willingness to be photographed.”

Delon offered a rare warmer side in a supporting role in Visconti’s 1963 masterwork “The Leopard,” in which Burt Lancaster played a 19th century Sicilian prince (the actor’s voice was dubbed) trying to cope with revolution and what it will mean for his family and his social class. Delon played his dashing nephew, who joins the revolutionaries, then throws in with the king’s army; he had palpable chemistry in the film with the beautiful Claudia Cardinale.

In 1962 Delon starred with Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse,” the second entry in the director’s justly famous alienation trilogy. Delon was perfectly cast as a wheeler-dealer stockbroker who becomes involved with Vitti’s character but is unwilling and unable to satisfy her emotional needs.

In Joseph Losey’s brilliant “Mr. Klein” (1976) Delon gave a tightly controlled performance as a Catholic art dealer in occupied Paris who takes advantage as rich Jews with art collections are carted away —  but begins to have problems of his own as he is increasingly mistaken for an elusive Jew who is using his name for secret operations.

Delon starred with Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune, Ursula Andress and Capucine in the Terence Young-directed international production “Red Sun” (1971); the Western, shot in Spain, was not much liked in the U.S. but enjoyed success in Europe and Asia. (Delon, who developed an interest in Japan as a result of “Le Samourai,” long enjoyed a following in the country, where sunglasses branded with his name were a hit.)

Delon reunited with his “The Leopard” co-star Burt Lancaster in 1973 for the Michael Winner-directed thriller “Scorpio,” in which Delon played an assassin ordered to eliminate Lancaster’s weary spy, who wants out of the game.

Despite rejecting Hollywood, Delon did do three American films over the years: 1964 crime drama “Once a Thief” with Ann-Margret and Van Heflin, 1966 Western “Four for Texas” with Dean Martin, plus “Airport ’79: The Concorde,” in which he played the captain of the troubled plane.

Perhaps his 80th birthday is a good opportunity to discover the film of the enigmatic French superstar Alain Delon.

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  1. Joan Chanler says:

    Delon did reject Hollywood, but for a specific reason. Selznick wanted him to go home and learn English, which he did – and his English, by the way, is beautiful. But while back in France, he received some excellent offers and was convinced to stay in France. He asked Selznick to release him, which he did. I think looking back Delon may be sorry about that because later on he was ambitious to make it in America. Not that he needed to – he defines international superstar. And women and some men would disagree about something stated in the article – there was never anything feminine about Alain Delon. At 80 he still exudes sexiness and mascuinity.

    • Jan Hangland says:

      Joan – You are right on! So good to hear from someone who appreciates Delon as much as I.
      If some people think Delon was only good to make gangster films, they haven’t seen “Mr. Klein”,
      which brought attention to Jewish persecution during the war. He was very brave to take on such
      an unsympathetic role and I admire him for it. I also like that he’s outspoken in his beliefs. I don’t
      agree with his politics, but I appreciate that he cares enough to have opinions.

      As for me – I’m happy just watching him. The most seductive male I’ve ever seen on film. I do
      think his best films were made in France. America didn’t seem to know what to do with him and
      put him in stupid, badly written films.
      And you’re right – he’s still sexy! Not many men can maintain that appeal this long.

  2. Jan Hangland says:

    Alain Delon has to be the most beautiful, yet very masculine male ever on film. But he’s not just a pretty face – a man of strong convictions (which we liberals would disagree with) and a very complex person. Nothing shallow about this movie star. His private life is/was as fascinating as the characters he portrayed on film. Most, if not all the films he made in the U.S., are silly and beneath his talent . “Mr. Klein” is one of his greatest portrayals. There is much in this man to admire – then and now. He remains beautiful and enigmatic. He continues to be plain spoken with a fire in his belly. I can only hope the French appreciate their fascinating icon.
    Happy 81st birthday, Alain. You will be 81 in just a few weeks.

  3. Melissa says:

    I LOVE & am enthralled by Monsieur Alain Delon. I first saw him in America in the film, “Four for Texas” with Dean Martin and I, along with my school girlfriends were Crazy Mad about him. The film is so funny and I would like to see it again. At that time, I was taking French in school and getting Paris Match Magazine and reading the articles about him every time I could. We saw the film on TV. I now own “L’Eclisse and Purple Noon…which is soooo much better than the newer versions aka Talented Mr. Ripley.” I have also seen La Picene, Le Samourai, The Leopard and many more including one that I cannot remember the name of it, but it is so good as the main two characters lead his character to believe he was in an accident and has amnesia.

    He has worked with the most talented directors in history as well as other exceptional actors and the thought process of what Melville did for one shot to juxtapose half the screen to the other is true art.

    Regarding his life, Monsieur Delon has/is living with passion. Who wants to look back and say, “I should have, I could have, I would have?” Time goes by quickly for all of us. It is enthralling to see such a talented Icon live, create and experience life.

    As far as looks, “He is a hotty, smokin’ hot.” To have a Film Professor dissect him is a compliment, but also it is very easy to criticize as they have done the same for Robert Taylor and other male actors they deem too pretty. Can one be too pretty for film? The camera either likes you or it does not. And I always smile when I gander at the critic who may or may not give the Hunchback of Notre Damn a run for his money in the looks department. Plus given all that Monsieur Delon achieved prior to birth of Social Media, he is a popular force to be reckoned with which was not only about his looks, but his Great Talent as well.

    Joyeux anniversaire Monsieur. Delon. Vous avez apporté cette jouissance pour nous tous.

    Please keep doing plays and make more films, please? My hope is that I would get to see you in a play as that would be tres magnifique!

    Does anyone know where I can get the film he did with Ann-Margaret? Thank you!

    • Deb C says:

      Hi Melissa…i too studied French in high school…30 years ago now…but only discovered Mr Delon by accident a couple of years ago while watching Adieu L’ami (aka Farewell Friend/ Honour Among Thieves) with Charles Bronson. This is another great flic where we get the chance to experience Delon voicing his own English dialogue! Sexy!!

      Anyways, i have also viewed the movie you speak of ” Diaboliquement Votre/ Diabolically Yours” and enjoyed very much. As for “To Catch a Thief” with Anne Margaret, this is one i have found available on eBay (although i’m not sure which region compatable dvd you may require). It is one of the more pricier titles and I hope to add it to my collection in the near future. To say i am enthralled would be putting it mildly…as i have amassed around 30 Delon movies since beginning my collection. I even purchased one title that was only available without English sub titles as i was so keen to see him in the role :D !!

      Happy viewing
      Deb

  4. Bill Stone says:

    For my money SCORPIO with Delon foot chasing Lancaster in Vienna
    is just so cool, as is the score that went with it. No use of stunt doubles
    that I can see.

  5. Bill Lanese says:

    PURPLE NOON! WHAT? NOT A WORD? UNBELIEVABLE!

  6. Rumer Willis says:

    You forgot 1959’s “Purple Noon” directed by Rene Clement. Delon was the original, and sexiest, Mr. Ripley ;)

  7. Don Marren says:

    Don’t forget The Yellow Rolls-Royce – probably his most successful Hollywood film.

  8. Martha C. says:

    Happy Birthday Mr. Delon! So love your films, agree with Suzy, avoiding Hollywood was definitely a good decision. May you have years of health and happiness. :)

  9. Suzy says:

    Happy Birthday to Alain! His French films are wonderful; he probably made the right decision about Hollywood.

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