BLOG: Identifying the Samurai (Alain Delon at 80)

Delon 1963.jpg
Delon, c. 1963

by Ken Bakely

NOTE: The following article was originally written for the now-defunct online magazine When I first started writing for them, I received permission from the editor, Russell Farnham, to repost my contributions to the site if it ceased publication. This post was initially run in the November 2015 issue, to commemorate its subject’s eightieth birthday.

Several cosmetic modifications have been made to this text so it complies with the formatting rules of this site, otherwise it is reposted verbatim.

On August 11, 1970, Alain Delon appeared on The Dick Cavett Show. The first minute of his interview involve his rapport with Cavett on Delon’s self-assessed bad English. Cavett replies that if things get too bad, he’ll speak in a French accent to balance things out.

“Would you?” Delon replies.

He seems genuinely on edge, despite speaking the foreign tongue with grace and wit, and making nary a single grammatical or vocabulary error during the entire time he is pouring his worries onto Cavett, who seems slyly amused by the entire irony of the situation. The host changes the subject.

“The women on my staff have just been passing out at the thought of your coming over here tonight.”

A response, midsentence, and I’d guess only half-seriously: “Why?”

The rest of that interview is a magic carpet ride.

A person can be identified in any number of ways, from the arbitrary to the deep. Alain Delon was born on November 8, 1935, in Sceaux, France, a suburb of Paris. He has many children from a series of relationships throughout his life, some of whom have become actors themselves. He is politically conservative, presumably, donating great amounts of money to read an original manuscript of Charles de Gaulle’s 1940 speech in which the French leader encouraged the populace to strongly resist the incoming Nazi occupiers. He has mentioned his support for European political parties which support right-wing populism, like France’s National Front and the Geneva Citizen’s Movement in Switzerland, the country in which he has resided since 1999, managing a company which bears his name. But above family, ideology, business, and citizenship, Alain Delon is known as an actor, ingrained deeply into the history of 20th century French cinema, with his flowing hair and dynamic looks. He was seemingly born to be photographed.

After serving in the French Navy during the Indochina War in the early 1950s, Delon, following a dishonorable discharge, turned to acting, although not immediately. After spending several years building his profile on stage and screen, he made one of the films he is arguably best known for, the titular role in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 classic Le Samouraï. He says relatively little, yet he has a hypnotic presence which keeps us, the viewer, in a state of rapt interest. It’s easy to see how a film like this had a down-the-road impact on contemporary favorites like Drive. In Le Samouraï, Delon’s commanding work is second only to Melville’s tight direction, with spacious production design and palpable, nonverbal tension with high stakes. The movie truly is something to behold, as it builds to a masterful, yet largely silent penultimate setpiece set in and around the tunnels of the Parisian Metro.

Screenshot 2015-10-07 22.52.06.png
Alain Delon in a scene from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï.
But gushing over one particular entry in Delon’s filmography as some sort of comprehensive analysis does the actor a great discredit. As his profile rose in Europe throughout the mid to late 1960s, including performances in the Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal-penned historical drama Is Paris Burning and Le Cercle Rouge, Hollywood took note. He was featured in a few productions, like the obscure western Texas Across the River (1966), which in defense of the film did also star Dean Martin.  Delon never achieved widespread success in the United States, but over the years his foreign works have gained prominence and solidified his stance as an excellent actor, a leading man with indelible versatility.

In terms of his personal life, there is a particular omen, tracing back to October 1968, when his former bodyguard Stevan Marković was found dead, shot multiple times. Initial investigations indicated Delon in some way, dating back to a now infamous statement, in which an old letter from Marković to his brother which read in part, “If I get killed, it’s 100% the fault of Alain Delon and his godfather François Marcantoni.” (Marcantoni was a gangster from Corsica, who was jailed over Marković’s death, but released later due to a lack of evidence). Delon was not involved, it was found, but the case ballooned into a nationally concerned firestorm, where even the then-Prime Minister of France (later President) Georges Pompidou was briefly named, through an indirect connection with Delon via Pompidou’s wife. The murder remains unsolved to this day.

Delon 2011.jpg
Delon, c. 2011
But Delon has career is so illustrious and varied that this does not tarnish his legacy. He is still an icon, from his acting prowess to his striking Gallic features and suave smoothness. His name carries a perspicacity among those with even a passing familiarity with his work.  I must admit with some shame as a film critic that I had never seen a film in which he starred in before researching this article, but I’m glad I did, because now, like many, I realize what an impact he and his work carry. And it is with this observation that I believe I speak for everyone at On This Day in Film in wishing Alain Delon a happy eightieth birthday.