The Criterion Shelf: Starring Alain Delon

Bil Antoniou examines the career of the French matinee idol.

If the common wisdom that stardom comes to actors with contradictory qualities is correct, then Alain Delon was born a star. The face of an angel with haunted, almost devilish eyes couldn’t be more suited to capturing the hearts and imaginations of viewers. Throughout his lengthy career Delon has played a series of charismatic bad boys that have made him a very potent, very eternal sex symbol. (My seventy-five year old mother, who doesn’t have nearly the same interest in film as I do, visibly turned into a hormonal teenager while walking by the television as I was watching The Leopard.)

Delon’s origins suggest a perfect storm of elements that would create his quietly unsettled persona. Born in Sceaux, France in 1935, his parents divorced by the time he turned four, and then left him in the care of foster parents before taking him back only part-time. Catholic boarding school was followed by enlisting in the French Navy at eighteen, where he served in the First Indochina War but spent more time in military prison for being undisciplined. It’s like he was playing one of his signature roles before appearing on camera. A trip to Cannes with a girlfriend in 1956 resulted in him being spotted by a talent scout for David O. Selznick, but Delon didn’t want to learn English and broke his contract with the Hollywood producer after French filmmaker Yves Allegret convinced him to stay home.

Starring in Christine introduced him to the romantic partner, Romy Schneider, with whom he would forever be associated despite their breaking up four years later and starring in Purple Noon would make him a star. Since then, the cinema has been marked by this fascinating beauty, one could go from sweetly pretty to tough with just a twist of the perfectly sculpted jaw, but who always radiated depth despite succeeding in an industry that prioritizes looks before talent.

The Criterion Channel has put together a list of Delon’s films that perfectly capture his star quality and give you an understanding of that bewitching quality of contradiction: the gorgeous petty thief that you could still introduce to your mother.  Many thanks to Barbara Goslawski for contributing to this week’s group of reviews. They are listed in preferential order:


Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960)

Visconti’s finest film has an Italian family move to the big city after their eldest son (Spiros Focas) has already established himself there. The fantasy of success is replaced by the reality of exploitation for all involved, with Delon’s Rocco the one who is most sensitive and aware of the bunch. (It was this performance that inspired Madonna to name her son after him.) An obvious influence on the Godfather films later on, this massive, stunning work of art shows off Visconti’s narrative strengths at their best.


Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)

Bil Antoniou:  In Melville’s best film, Delon’s fiery eyes do most of the talking as he plays a gun for hire who executes a perfect hit on a nightclub owner, complete with thorough alibi, then finds himself being double-crossed by the man who hired him. Dark streets and brightly lit nightclubs abound in this stylish gangster pic with noirish overtones. Delon’s mysterious silence provides a great deal of the film’s crisp appeal, while the equally iconic performance by Cathy Rosier as a pianist who takes the form of his guardian angel, equals him as mesmerizing glamour.

Barbara Goslawski:  Alain Delon is the very definition of cool in Le Samourai, Melville’s chilling portrait of a solitary hitman. The filmmaker creates a unique noir thriller, conjuring just the right touch of police procedural and tying it to the unforgiving discipline and routine practised by this enigmatic loner. Much of the film is wordless, relying on the act of observing – knowing when to make a move is key. Melville uses noirish touches sparingly but to great effect and this stylish restraint is effortlessly matched by Delon’s stark but haunting performance.


Purple Noon (René Clement, 1960)

This first film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley has Delon perfectly cast as the charismatic sociopath whose desire to be a fake somebody (rather than a real nobody) has him getting close to a handsome socialite, Philippe (Maurice Ronet), and his put-upon girlfriend (Marie Laforet). Delon’s Ripley has been hired by the socialite’s father to bring him home and end his immature playboying around Italy, but our antihero has other plans. So intent on emulating Philippe’s life that he ends up replacing him. Closer in narrative to Highsmith’s novel than Anthony Minghella’s more overtly homoerotic 1999 version, this one’s burning sunlit imagery is given a dangerous edge by Delon’s morally dubious but compelling presence.


Mr. Klein (Joseph Losey, 1976)

Despite winning a César Award for Best Picture, this feels like a deeply underappreciated masterwork from Joseph Losey. Mr. Klein is one of the finest films made in the ’70ss about World War II even if it is not as flashy as Seven Beauties or as poignant as Lacombe Lucien. Delon is superb as an amoral art dealer who has no compunctions about giving desperate Jews very little money for the artwork that they are selling to survive. When a Jewish community newspaper confuses his gentile self with another man by the same name, Delon becomes obsessed with figuring out who the other man is, confused about whether or not it is a simple mistake or if someone is trying to get him in trouble with the Nazi-occupied French government. He doggedly pursues the identity of a man who acts as a sort of doppelganger: is it a person or just a manifestation of his own mental state of mind, his fear tinged by guilt? Losey creates a slowly tightening intensity whose hold on you is invisible thanks to your own need to find out the secrets that Delon is captivated by.


Any Number Can Win (Henri Verneuil, 1963)

Delon is at the very height of his appeal as the younger of two stars heading up this heist movie, which combines the visual dazzle of Bob Le Flambeur with the joyful glee of Ocean’s Eleven. Jean Gabin gets out of prison and decides to go for one last big payday, enlisting younger thief Delon to join him at Cannes where they will rob millions from the Palm Beach Casino. Delon sets up as a gigolo in a swanky hotel and gets involved with a showgirl, their torrid romance threatening to undo the meticulously prepared plan that Gabin has laid out to get the loot. The stunning locales and exuberance of the performances make it impossible to resist despite the familiarity of the plot. It’s capped off with a deliciously funny and brilliantly executed ending.


L’eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)

Bil Antoniou:  Antonioni usually presents an alienated Monica Vitti in a world whose connections are beyond her grasp.  But here she’s the vital and interested party who is trying to make connections in an alienated world (and works as a translator, so subtle). Antonioni in the early ’60s, his best period of architecturally dazzling, narratively spare works of art, will be the very last word in intelligent chic for some and the very description of arthouse pretentiousness for others, but there are very worthy sequences to be found in L’eclisse, even for those who prefer Red Desert or L’Avventura to this one. (Particularly scenes of watching the Italian stock market go mad.) Delon isn’t as significant to the director as Vitti is, he gets little more to do than look dashing in suits, with his dubbed voice further removing his presence from the viewer, but his calm and confident cool fits the maestro’s world perfectly.

Barbara Goslawski: Antonioni’s classic tale of human alienation in the modern era features a youthful Alain Delon alongside Monica Vitti. As with the other films of this trilogy (L’Aventurra, La Notte), story is not as important as mood, tone, and atmosphere. Each film is more philosophical statement than story. Landscape and architecture figure prominently in what little story-telling is evident in L’eclisse, overpowering the humans in the frame, yet amplifying their disconnection and ennui. Vitti’s character drives the film but Delon is striking as her love interest – a man who appears as her polar opposite, even as she keeps trying to bring him closer. He’s part cad, part charmer (but mostly cad), and our beautiful but mostly blank-faced Delon is perfectly in sync with the director’s intentions. Not all of Antonioni’s objectives are clear in L’eclisse – every time I watch this film, my jaw drops at what I believe to be an unnecessary and blatantly racist scene featuring Monica Vitti.


Once a Thief (Ralph Nelson, 1965)

Delon’s eyes veer between childlike innocence and hardened cool with exceptional ease, and they’re always put to their best use in his antihero roles. He elicits great sympathy in Ralph Nelson’s emotionally charged heist movie which, like Any Number Can Win, is based on a novel by Zekial Marko. Delon plays an ex-con who wants to live the quiet life with wife Ann-Margret and their little daughter, but trouble comes out of his past to ruin his plans. His brother (Jack Palance) shows up with two of his goons and forces Delon to take part in a million-dollar robbery. Atmospheric, shockingly violent and featuring very sexy chemistry between the leads (even if Ann-Margret overdoes her bid at proving herself a dramatic actress), the film cares less about the details about the crime and more about its effect on those involved. It’s surprisingly moving by the end.


Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville1970)

No one makes gangster films like Jean-Pierre Melville, and this enjoyable entry, while not up to the standard of Bob Le Flambeur, is not to be missed. Delon plays a cool thief who is released from prison the same day as a deranged murderer, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), and is unaware that he is sharing a ride with him when while the killer hides in his trunk. The two join forces and enlist a former police officer to aid them in a jewel heist, while the policeman who was guarding Vogel tries to get a mob boss to help catch all three of them. A healthy blend of suspense, action and deliciously wry humour, this is a great example of the 1940s classics of the genre inspiring the masterpiece-makers of the later decades.


The Widow Couderc (Pierre Granier-Deferre, 1971)

Delon is frequently shirtless as the mysterious drifter who arrives in a rural village in 1930s France and becomes a handyman for a lonely, hard-bitten widow (Simone Signoret) who is feuding with her sister-in-law over ownership of her farm. The dark nature of her past marriage is pitted against the rise of fascism as the Second World War approaches and the efforts made by the widow’s enemies against her have devastating, if rather melodramatic, consequences. Director Pierre Granier-Deferre doesn’t pick sides between whether or not country life is boring or bucolic and presents it as both, getting great drama out of the chemistry between the leads. Just ignore the fact that Signoret is the only woman in her village who favours so much eyeliner.


Un Flic (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972)

The great Jean-Pierre Melville ended his career with a cop caper as classy and exciting as the best in his oeuvre. It opens with a bank robbery where one of the bad guys is wounded, then in gathering the loot, we learn that the robbery was simply the setup for a far more spectacular heist on a train to be led by chief criminal and night club owner Richard Crenna. The other side of the law is never far behind, with Delon switching from his usual antihero side to play the police officer who is always one step behind the bad guys and is also connected to the femme fatale (Catherine Deneuve) who works at Crenna’s nightclub. It’s not Melville’s best, but the gorgeous gun-metal blue imagery and the long, terrific sequences without dialogue are snappy and the action holds you until the end.


Spirits of the Dead (Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, Roger Vadim, 1968)

The second of three Edgar Allan Poe stories adapted in this omnibus film touches on the same creepy doppelganger theme that Delon explores in Mr. Klein. Louis Malle directs “William Wilson”, in which the star is perfectly cast as a vain soldier who meets a man identical to him and longs to kill him out of pride, later confessing to a priest the sins of his life including his treatment of his beloved Giuseppina (Brigitte Bardot). These days, it’s still Fellini’s contribution, “Toby Dammit”, that plays the best, while the first, “Metzengerstein”, is the most bizarre for casting Jane and Peter Fonda as would-be lovers.


The Girl on a Motorcycle (Jack Cardiff, 1968)

Likely controversial in 1968, nowadays this one feels like a Carry On film without the humour. A dewy young Marianne Faithfull wakes up in the middle of the night and realizes she can no longer stand the boring suburban life she settled for with her placid husband only two months earlier. She jumps on her motorcycle and makes a trip from her German town to Switzerland to visit her hot, emotionally unavailable lover (Alain Delon), the whole time waxing poetic on the two men in her life. The photography by director Jack Cardiff (who shot such classics as Black Narcissus) is beautiful, capturing gorgeous scenery of pan-European countrysides, but the dialogue is listless and the plot is a one-note clunker that goes nowhere for an hour and a half.