"Astonishingly handsome," writes John Farr in the Huffington Post, Alain Delon, born on November 8, 1935, "was bound to portray romantic figures, but he also projected a sullen, enigmatic, slightly dangerous quality that suggested rebellion and alienation." Kimberley Lindbergs, who's written quite a bit about Delon at Cinebeats, quotes him in another appreciation for TCM: "I am not a star. I am an actor. I have been fighting for years to make people forget that I am just a pretty boy with a beautiful face. It's a hard fight, but I will win it. I want the public to realize that above all I am an actor, a very professional one who loves every minute of being in front of the camera. But one who becomes very miserable the instant the director shouts, 'Cut!'"
And she reminds us of just a handful of his landmark roles, "the ambitious boxer in Rocco and His Brothers (1960), the scheming social climber in Purple Noon (1960), the seductive banker in L'Eclisse (1962), the dashing Tancredi in The Leopard (1963), the petty criminal in Joy House (1964), the cold-blooded killer in Le samouraï (1967), the jealous lover in The Swimming Pool (1969) and... the paranoid art dealer in Mr Klein (1976)."
"If the script was bad, and the direction unimpressive, he walked through a film, like someone waiting for a meeting that never comes," wrote David Thomson in the Guardian in August. "But if they were above average, Delon usually rose to the occasion. The first time this showed was when he played Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley in René Clément's Plein Soleil ([Purple Noon], 1960) — the story that Anthony Minghella and Matt Damon did later as The Talented Mr Ripley. But the earlier film has not faded away, and it thrives on Delon's angelic insolence, his latent bisexuality and the instinct for austere wickedness. Ripley has become one of our great modern characters, and Highsmith seems to be a writer who knew our ambivalence before we did. But no one has done Ripley better than Delon." As for Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse, "Delon takes the fortress of Monica Vitti by storm. He is charming, untrustworthy, energetic, impulsive and so highly strung he steals the film away from Vitti."
Both Thomson and Farr revisit several of the roles Kimberly Lindbergs mentions, but let's turn to a few other voices as well. Bright Lights Film Journal editor Gary Morris, for example, on Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers: "Viewers used to seeing Delon's super-cool persona of the 60s will be alarmed, though ultimately moved, by his screaming hysterics in the penultimate scene... This is one of the defining 'operatic' scenes in all of Visconti's work, with the characters almost diagrammatically choreographed and their screaming fits — alternating with brooding silences — practically arias. That it's genuinely affecting is a tribute to the director's meticulous character development. Homoeroticism is blessedly rampant throughout Rocco. Someone once said that Visconti 'cast with his dick,' though unfortunately there's no footage of this process taking place. Still, the parade of gorgeous male flesh, the lingering close-ups on these men who are still somehow boys, supports the idea, giving the film a sensuality that sets it apart from other films of the period, Italian or not."
And Visconti's The Leopard? In May, Julian Sancton reported to Vanity Fair on Martin Scorsese's presentation of the newly restored version at Cannes. "Watching themselves waltzing onscreen, as one of the most beautiful couples in film history, Delon and [Claudia] Cardinale — now 75 and 72, respectively — grabbed each other's hands. After the screening, Delon, still dashing with a full head of white, longish hair (and from what I hear from a female audience member last night, still helplessly flirtatious), and Cardinale, elastic as a 20-year-old starlet, soaked in the audience's adulation as if they had just performed the film on stage."
"Le Samouraï has, in effect, been remade a thousand times — every impassive, hollowed-out, urban-man-of-violence movie made in the last 30 years owes it a drink." Michael Atkinson in the Voice: "Swallowed by an anachronistic trench coat and fedora, which nevertheless blends into Melville's un-60s-ish timelessness, Delon became here that rare thing: a movie totem, not an actor or character but a temple-god in our communal consciousness."
Ian Johnston in the Film Journal on Melville's Le Cercle Rouge (1970): "Alain Delon's portrayal of hitman Jef Costello, the 'samourai' of the title, has become iconic of the film itself: a cool, almost blank surface, an androgynous beauty, ritualised action, an absence of 'backstory' or psychological explanations."
"Finally, there's Mr Klein (1976)," wrote David Gurevich in Images some time ago, "a film that some consider among Losey's best, and I agree — definitely the best I have seen.... As usual, Losey gets a stellar performance out of his lead: this is one role where Delon smartly plays off his tremendous charisma (few people can wear a hat with as much panache) to create one of his most nuanced performances."
Back to Kimberly Lindbergs: "Alain Delon officially retired from acting in 1998 but he occasionally takes small parts in movies and has appeared in some popular French television dramas as well as notable stage plays. During the last decade directors such as Johnnie To, Sofia Coppola and Olivier Marchal have tried to coax Delon into accepting substantial roles in films they were making. Unfortunately no one has been able to persuade the actor to appear in another movie but I eagerly await his return to the screen."
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