Double Down Delon...1963, 1969
Updated: Mar 19
For a long time Alain Delon was a name I associated with the Romanian Olympic gymnast Nadia Comăneci, who famously answered a question from a journalist regarding her "ideal man" soon after her outstanding performance at the 1979 Olympics, that it would have to be Alain Delon, something that caused a twinge of jealousy combined with bitter regret that I personally could never live up to that gold standard of raw masculinity, since I had a crush on her at the time which duly evaporated on hearing this devastating admission.
I was certainly aware of the actor, possibly as a result of the occasional performance in a film outside of his native France and most likely a Hollywood film at that, though by the end of the 60's he had been an actor who had successfully straddled both French and Italian cinema thanks to working with critically acclaimed directors such as Luchino Visconti, most notably in Visconti's "Rocco & His Brothers".
The two films I watched recently (on Criterion Channel) are retreads of sorts, or at least the revisiting of a career-defining genre, for both Delon and also for Jean Gabin, with whom he co-starred in the striking 1963 crime caper / heist film "Any Number Can Win" (Fr: "Mélodie en Sous-sol"), directed by Henri Verneuil, made 3 years after René Clément's "Plein Soleil", a film that centers on a treacherous murder by a cold-hearted killer that has parallels to Delon's role in the 1969 film "Le Piscine" (Eng: "The Swimming Pool"), the only other common aspect being that they are both adaptations from successful novels.
Delon's roles more often than not traded on his distinctive rugged appearance and brooding countenance that tended toward casting as "negative" characters, something that he sought to shake free from in later films - in the earlier "Rocco & His Brothers" he is the stabilizing element in his family against the disruptive force of his older brother, for example.
In "La Piscine" he is cast opposite his then-wife, the German actress Romy Schneider, and Maurice Ronet, playing a couple languishing by the pool of a rented house in the South of France in the middle of a typically hot summer. Their life appears idyllic until a phone call taken by Schneider's "Marianne" announces the arrival of her old friend and former old flame "Harry Lannier" (Maurice Ronet) with his daughter "Penelope", played by Jane Birkin, in tow.
Delon's "Jean-Paul" accepts the news less enthusiastically until he sees Penelope, using his attraction toward her - even though she appears to be barely teenaged - to irritate Marianne since he feels uncomfortable entertaining Harry, also an old friend of his, and who is also a successful record producer with a fast car in stark comparison to Delon's career as a struggling writer.
Jean-Paul begins to suspect that Harry is there to rekindle his old romance with Marianne, so he flirts with Penelope, when in fact Marianne has committed herself to Jean-Paul, though the presence of Penelope casts doubt on Jean-Paul's loyalty to her - keen to make their unexpected guests feel at home in their idyllic holiday rental she tries to smooth over any issues between herself and Jean-Paul.
As Jean-Paul gradually begins to resent Harry's presence, a heated exchange between the two around the pool one evening after both men have been drinking ends with Harry's murder in the pool itself by Jean-Paul, in a fit of jealousy after Harry ridicules his lack of ambition and devotion to a life of leisure.
This is effectively a third act in a film that uses its' first two thirds to emphasize the languid slow-moving pace of the characters enjoying a lazy holiday and it could feel as if it drags a little in terms of pacing, but after watching the film this is necessary to emphasize the horror of the murder and the police investigation that follows.
Jean-Paul manages to outwit the police inspector investigating the case with his attempts to cover-up the murder but Marianne begins to suspect that he is the culprit, managing to extract a confession from him with the intention of exposing him to the police.
Although Marianne is filled with horror that Jean-Paul has callously murdered her best friend and former lover she can't bring herself to deliver him to justice, and the film ends with the two in each others' arms - an ending that adds infinitely to the sense of horror and that contrasts the conclusion of "Plein Soleil".
The film's score was provided by Michel Legrand.
Henri Verneuil also directed the 1963 film "Any Number Can Win" - Verneuil is a French director I'm not familiar with but judging by the two films reviewed here he is certainly one whose work demands further investigation.
As a side-note on the casting of Alain Delon opposite the then more famous Jean Gabin, who could be described as a pillar of pre and post-war French cinema, the role of Gabin's sidekick in the heist of casino on the French Riviera was earmarked for Jean-Louis Trintignant who was by then a rising star following films such as Louis Malle's "Elevator To The Gallows", compared to the less well-known (in 1963) Delon.
However, Delon was keen to be involved in something removed from the neo-realist films of his career at that point to something more light-hearted and up-beat and so he lobbied the producer Jacques Bar, fiercely for the role.
It turns out to have been a gamble that paid off since Delon is perfect in the role of a petty criminal "Francis Verlot" hired by Gabin's "Mister Charles", a career criminal determined to end his career on a high with a last big job, which parallel's his earlier and somewhat darker film "Touchez Pas Au Grisbi", directed by Jacques Becker in 1954.
It's easy to see why Jean-Louis Trintignant would have been a first choice since the role required a great deal of physical stunts performed by the actor himself in a similar way to his role in "Elevator to The Gallows", and in strikingly similar situations, such as in lift shafts, but Delon does a great job and is clearly able to pull off the required stunts with apparent ease, and the role could be viewed as a smart career move that raised his profile in French cinema.
The heist which forms the second act of the film ramps up the tension to a level that is necessary to set up the film's payoff, but to reveal that would be a spoiler and there is a lot more to enjoy in this film, from the stylish modernist typography of the opening titles over the score (by Michel Magne, a talented composer whose career was cut tragically short by suicide) and shots of the brand spanking new brutalist apartment blocks in the Paris "banlieue" that have all but erased Mister Charles' old home while he has been doing time in prison.
"La Piscine" /"The Swimming Pool", Dir: Henri Verneuil, 1969
"Any Number can Win". Dir: Henri Verneiul. 1963