At the close of Rocco and His Brothers, the youngest, Luca, runs his hand along a row of posters touting Rocco’s recent boxing triumph, all dominated by the same pinup snap of Alain Delon as the smooth-faced pugilist, worthy of an autographed glossy. Early in his career, Delon, born in 1935, was always so beautiful and remote, accessible solely in two dimensions. With his switchblade cheekbones and kiss-me pout, the French actor possessed the cold allure of a lodestone as the wunderkind captain of the stock exchange in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Eclipse (1962) or as the murderous, mirror-kissing poseur Tom Ripley in Purple Noon (1961), directed by his supposed sometime lover René Clement. (Check Delon’s multitasking skills in The Eclipse when he tosses a few bills at a café cashier like a blasé gangster, palms the bottom of a gamine fellow patron, and sidles up to Monica Vitti at the bar, all in one fluid motion.)
Luchino Visconti enlisted Delon more unexpectedly—and arguably, less successfully—in Rocco (1960) and The Leopard (1963), using his delicate prettiness as the easily breakable mold for a new male model: vulnerable, sacrificial, even passive. Delon is most convincing, however, in Rocco’s radical sadomasochistic gesture of fraternal love, when he urges his beloved Nadia to return to the arms of the man who raped her: Rocco’s brother Simone. Truth was, Delon couldn’t plausibly project warmth and sensitivity on-screen. (Or off: As detailed in the 1995 documentary Nico Icon, Delon never admitted paternity of his child with heroin-ravaged chanteuse Nico, and broke off all contact with his own mother when she assumed custody of her badly neglected grandson.)
Despite the actor’s limitations, Jean-Pierre Melville once declared of Delon and his occasional co-star Jean-Paul Belmondo, “They’re the only two jeunes premiers in the French cinema.” Accordingly, the filmmaker recruited both performers for a battery of flic flicks. Delon achieved icy simpatico with Catherine Deneuve in Melville’s Dirty Money (1972) and iconic solitude as the deep-freeze assassin in the eternally overrated stylebook Le Samouraï (1967), in which Delon paid homage to the director by copying his hat adjustment mannerisms.
“Just guard your brother. Keep him from . . . frequenting certain people,” the boxing impresario tells Rocco euphemistically before Simone goes off the rails. Delon himself should have followed this advice. In 1968, his bodyguard was found dead in a dumpster outside the actor’s home, igniting a scandal that revealed Delon’s long-standing connections with the Marseilles Mafia (though he was cleared of all charges). His career thereafter—which soon spanned producing and directing—leaned ever more heavily on policiers and crime capers that traded on his confirmably sinister persona. Performing the underworld samurai, Delon kept it real as 50 Cent.
A man of professed right-wing sympathies who has often acted for left-wing filmmakers, Delon accomplished his most fruitful collaborations in recent decades with Joseph Losey and Jean-Luc Godard. In Losey’s muddled but intriguing Mr. Klein (1976), Delon evokes Dirk Bogarde as an opportunistic dandy in occupied France who discovers his identity switched with that of a mysterious Jew, much to the interest of an encroaching police bureaucracy. Curiously, Delon missed the boat on the French new wave, but at the end of the ’80s he made up for lost time not only by starring in a movie called Nouvelle Vague (1990), but by working overtime for Godard, playing twins.