Alain Delon delivered great performances in films made by some of the great maestros of cinema: Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Pierre Melville, Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard, Rene Clement and Joseph Losey. That alone may qualify Delon as a great actor, because in order to be great, the actor must give great performances in great productions, it is not good enough to give great performances in mediocre ones. Delon however, not only gave great performances in great movies, but defined an entire aesthetic (Delon is a reference point for a certain kind of acting) in the same way a painter might, or a filmmaker or a playwright. In this sense, Delon is a supreme actor-artist and belongs in a group made up of only a handful of actors.
How do you describe Delon's work to someone who has never seen him perform? Well, Delon is not forceful in the way Brando was forceful, and he's a positive wallflower compared to someone like Laughton. Delon is reserved, he is still, and when he does move it is swift, decisive and precise, and he always keeps it simple. His work is about clarity of action, that is: the actions Delon performs on behalf of his character in the scene are clear. He is highly disciplined* and excludes the non-essential in service of the film he is working on. Physically, he is superbly constructed, and I have often thought that if I had to design a screen actor, it would probably come out something like Alain Delon.
I knew Delon was my kind of actor when I saw him in Antonioni's masterpiece, L'Eclisse, where he plays a brash, arrogant stockbroker chasing after Monica Vitti. There is a scene which takes place in the office where Delon's character works. It is the end of a very busy day, where Delon has had to deal with many angry clients demanding their money back after the stock market has collapsed. Finally, he has a moment of peace: relaxing at his desk he picks up a glass of Coke, rocks back on his chair and slowly brings the drink to his lips, but just before he is about to drink, he pulls the glass away from his mouth and slams it back down onto the desk, leaps out of his chair, grabs his coat and leaves the office. We find out in the next scene that Delon was late for a date, hence the about turn with the Coke. This is a brilliant example of how the actor can convey so much through the handling of objects. Here, Delon has shown, by changing his action in front of us, how the character has had a complete and rapid change of thought (note that the actor need not “think” the “thoughts” of the “character”, and this is impossible anyway), it is simple, but it's compelling, and it's true.
This week saw Delon turn 75, and I was shocked to see him in a photograph as the old man he now is (albeit still in good shape) because my image of him is still stuck in 1967, when he played the now iconic hitman, Jef Costello, in Jean-Pierre Melville's seminal film noir masterpiece, Le Samourai, a movie which reached almost mythical proportions for me because I had to wait so many years to see it, and it's still not readily available here in the UK. Le Samourai is also one of the most influential films of all time. Almost all contemporary silent-assassin-films will have been affected by it in some way. Infact, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino among others, have sited Melville's film as an influence upon their own work (and, if I may, an influence upon mine, as my short script “Reprieve” owes something to Melville), and, at the centre of it all, is Delon, as the stoical master Hitman, utterly immaculate, and very, very cool.
Le Samourai is a deceptively simple film, as is Delon's performance in it, yet neither are lacking in mystery. Further, Melville's film is essential in the sense that every frame is necessary, exclude anything and the film will not make sense. Again, this is in harmony with Delon's work, we absolutely must watch everything he does because everything he does is meaningful, and we sense this while watching. And both the film and Delon refuse to yield their secrets, even after repeat viewing. Rarely has there been an example of a film being constructed around the aesthetic of it's leading actor, and, vice versa, rarely has an actor embodied a film's aesthetic so purely. There is a unity between the actor's performance and the filmmaker's design, they become one and the same, and the overall effect is a film of true aesthetic beauty.
*Volker Schlondorff tells the tale of how Delon would arrive on set precisely at the time he was called, and leave exactly when scheduled to.