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Helmer Deray dies

'French Hitchcock' took classical approach to films

This article was updated at 4:05 p.m. PT on August 11, 2003.

Filmmaker Jacques Deray, who directed 24 films including nine featuring Alain Delon, died Saturday at his home in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. He was 74 and had been coping with a chronic illness for several years.

A skilled craftsman whose fil-mography is dominated by police thrillers, many of them hits, Deray worked with the cream of French stars, including Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lino Ventura, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Yves Montand.

Born Jacques Desrayaud in 1929 to a comfortable Lyon family, he studied acting in Paris at age 19 and appeared in several small roles. But Deray, who believed hands-on experience as an actor was invaluable for a director, was drawn to the other side of the camera in 1952.

After working as an assistant to Luis Bunuel, Henri Verneuil and Jules Dassin among other prominent helmers, Deray made his directing debut in 1960 with “Le Gigolo” star-ring Alida Valli and Jean-Claude Brialy.

He switched to police thrillers “Rififi a Tokyo” (1961, with Charles Vanel) and “Symphonie pour un massacre” (1963), but it wasn’t until 1969 that his reputation was sealed.

That year “La Piscine” [‘The Pool’] a delectably creepy psychological thriller set on the Riviera and starring Delon and Romy Schneider, put Deray on the map. Delon and Deray formed a 25-year partnership whose results, although uneven, included several hits.

“Borsalino” (1970), a serio-comic romp starring Delon and Belmondo as stylish gangsters in 1930s-era Marseilles, was a smash, selling nearly 5 million tix and finishing fourth in that year’s box office tally.

Although he had begun directing as the French New Wave got underway, Deray — sometimes called “the French Hitchcock” — took a classical approach to filmmaking, deftly creating suspense and unease onscreen.

Many of Deray’s projects were adapted from French or English-language books; vet scripter Jean-Claude Carriere was a frequent collaborator. Distinguished band leader Claude Bolling often composed the scores, with the music to “Borsalino” a stand-out.

Other noteworthy films include “Flic Story” (1975); “Un papillon sur l’epaule” (1978) which won the Grand Prix du Cinema Francais; “Trois Hommes a abattre” (1980) and “On ne meurt que deux fois” based on a Robin Cook novel. This last, starring Michel Serrault and Charlotte Rampling, won the Jury Prize at the 1984 Montreal Film Festival.

Deray’s final feature film was “The Teddy Bear” (1994) adapted from a Georges Simenon story and starring Delon. Deray continued to direct for television.

Deray was president of the Cannes . Film Festival jury in 1981. An active participant in several organizations devoted to the promotion of cinema and the rights of creative personnel, Deray was a VP of Unifrance from 1973-1975 and, starting in 1974, served for over twenty years on France’s film ratings board.

Deray had also been president of the directors’ org, the Societe des Realisateurs de Films (SRF), and a VP of the Society of Authors and Compos-ers of Dramatic Works (SACD), which is in the forefront of copyright and royalty issues.

Earlier this year Deray published “J’ai connu un belle epoque” (I Experi-enced a Wonderful Era), a book about the film business over the past 40 years.

“I had the enormous good fortune to work with extraordinary actors when other talented people knew how to bring out their talents. I don’t think we’re likely to enjoy another era in film as rich as the years I experienced,” Deray told Daily Variety in June.

He is survived by his wife and daughter.