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John Farr.Writer, editor and lecturer on timeless film
Posted: November 7, 2010 12:20 PM
For those younger readers unfamiliar with him, how best to summarize this actor? Well, let's put it this way: in terms of authentic heartthrobs, before there was Johnny Depp, there was Alain Delon. Astonishingly handsome, Delon was bound to portray romantic figures, but he also projected a sullen, enigmatic, slightly dangerous quality that suggested rebellion and alienation. This was no accident, for Delon's off-screen life, juicier than most of his movies, reflected someone instinctively at odds with authority and convention. Born just outside Paris to working-class parents in 1935, he was the child of a broken home, and during his formative years, first in school and then the military, he was a consistent, if not constant, disciplinary problem. Endowed as he was with an almost feminine beauty, perhaps he was at extra pains to assure the world he was no powder puff. Amateur psychology aside, the early road Delon travelled was undeniably bumpy: before being discovered in the late fifties, he toiled first as a butcher's assistant, later as a waiter and a porter. However, his life would endure its share of scandal and controversy even after fame hit in 1960, through a string of "liaisons dangereuses", as well as the much-publicized murder of his bodyguard in 1968, which would link the actor to figures in the Corsican underworld. Delon weathered it all. My first recollection of this iconic French star, who turns seventy-five tomorrow, was his appearance in a wildly popular film called "Borsalino" (1970), which Delon co-produced and which co-starred perhaps his closest on-screen rival, Jean-Paul Belmondo. Concerning two gangsters in 1930's Marseilles, it was France's answer to the prior year's mega-hit "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid": a slightly tongue-in-cheek buddy movie which succeeded largely on the charisma and chemistry of its two male leads. I'd dearly love to screen that film again to see if it holds up, but typical of the often maddening movie business, it is unavailable on DVD. As popular as "Borsalino" was, critically speaking it would herald a turning point in Delon's career; for the most part, his best and most enduring work would be behind him. But oh my goodness, what work it was. Fluent in both French and Italian, Delon's filmography from the sixties features six particularly distinguished films directed by some of the then-acknowledged masters of international cinema- people with names like Visconti and Melville.
Purple Noon (1960)- After tracking down prodigal playboy Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) at the behest of his industrialist father, Tom Ripley (Delon) gets a taste of Greenleaf's luxurious lifestyle on the Italian coast. Soon, Ripley has taken to the life, and forgetting his obligation, befriends Greenleaf. But Ripley's envy of his host's wealth and engagement to gorgeous Marge (Marie Laforet) builds to a sinister climax after his own funds are cut off. This French version of Barbara Highsmith's "The Talented Mr. Ripley" delivers creepy thrills in a fetching Southern Italian locale. Delon, in his breakthrough role, plays the dashingly amoral Ripley with cunning savoir-faire, and Nino Rota's eerie score accentuates his darkest instincts. Masterfully helmed by Rene Clement, "Noon" hews closer to Highsmith's tense storyline than Anthony Minghella's 1999 remake, and- to my mind- is sexier and more compelling as a result.
Rocco And His Brothers (1960)- This epic film tells of the Parondis, an impoverished family from the Sicilian countryside who come to Milan to seek their fortunes. Exploring the lives of five brothers and their widowed mother over 12 years, and told in episodic fashion, the focus remains mostly on the quiet, handsome Rocco (Delon) and erratic, hot-tempered Simone (Renato Salvatori), who both fall for bewitching prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot). A film of sizeable sweep and authenticity, "Rocco" is another near-masterpiece by director Luchino Visconti. Though each Parondi brother is profiled, it's the emerging rivalry between Rocco and the mercurial Simone that drives the story forward. French actress Girardot would also achieve stardom playing Nadia, the woman of the streets who comes between them. Long but amply rewarding throughout.
L'Eclisse (1962)- Dissatisfied with her effete fiancé, Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), gorgeous young Vittoria (Monica Vitti) breaks off their engagement without articulating what has caused her sudden change of heart. Before long, she's pursued by an acquaintance of her mother's, cocky Roman stockbroker Piero (Delon). Vittoria resists his advances at first, then embarks on a giddy, passionate love affair that's clouded by her mysterious ambivalence. This meticulously composed, at times abstract drama provides another variation on director Michelangelo Antonioni's central preoccupation in the early '60s: the tenuousness of human connection. Vitti, his oft-appearing muse, never looked more radiant or alluring, which makes her character's act of recoiling from physical affection even more puzzling. Delon is winning as Piero, a confident young buck who knows how to make money at the exchange but fails to fully possess Vittoria. Beautifully stylized and ambiguous, "L'Eclisse" casts a chilly eye on the nature of love and attachment.
The Leopard (1963)- This sweeping film portrays a transitional period in 19th century Sicily, when the old aristocracy gave way to the rising middle classes to forge a more democratic nation. This societal change is glimpsed through the eyes of the aging prince Don Fabrizio Salina, (Burt Lancaster), decidedly of the old Italy, who views its passing philosophically. Salina's nephew Tancredi (Delon) and his intended Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) represent the incoming order. Visconti's exquisite epic weaves the theme of societal upheaval into a sumptuous and stunning cinematic tapestry. A meticulously dubbed Lancaster gives a flavorful, commanding performance as the proud patriarch, while Delon and Cardinale comprise one of the most gorgeous and magnetic young couples ever captured on celluloid. The film's final set-piece is a particular stunner, often cited as one of the most visually arresting sequences in all film. (Trivia note: both Brando and Laurence Olivier were considered for Lancaster's role here, just as the three would compete for the part of Don Corleone in "The Godfather" nearly ten years later.)
Le Samourai (1967)- Jean-Pierre Melville's film stars Delon as Jef Costello, a cipher-like hitman who lives for his work. When Jef carries out a high-profile contract, a determined police superintendent (Francois Perier) becomes certain Jef is the culprit. But thanks to two beautiful, equally inscrutable women, the assassin has both a tidy alibi and a witness who never saw him at the crime scene. Seminal gangster movie homage combines elements of Kurosawa and American film noir to create a spare film strikingly short on dialogue (in fact, the first ten minutes pass in silence). Delon is ideal for the role of Jef, as his surface male beauty amplifies the character's underlying moral and emotional vacuum. Behind those icy, classic features, you glimpse nothing but oblivion. Notably, Delon's then-wife Nathalie plays Jane, who furnishes Jef's alibi.
Le Cercle Rouge (1970)- Newly released from a Marseilles prison, small-time hood Corey (Delon) teams up with Vogel (Gianmaria Volonte)--an escaped convict being hunted by Corsican police inspector Mattei (Andre Bourvil)--and alcoholic former cop Jansen (Yves Montand) for a big-time jewel heist at Place Vendome. Desperation sets in as they are dogged by cops, gangsters, informers, and in the case of Mattei, psychological demons. Set in the seedy underworld of late '60s France, director Melville's tense suspense film features a first-rate turn by Delon, all cool poise as a handsome ex-con angling for the big payoff as soon as he's sprung. The highlight is a 20-minute sequence in which the masked trio pull off a sensationally difficult crime with professional precision and true bravado. Melville keeps the pace taut and the atmosphere forbidding in this exemplary noir thriller.
As Alain Delon looks back on his colorful life and career, which gradually segued to producing and launching various enterprises merchandising his name and image, he can feel justly proud- not only to be a true survivor, but to have amassed such an outstanding roster of films by the tender age of 35.
Joyeux Anniversaire, Monsieur Delon!