As far as male screen-style icons go, there’s an undisputed holy trinity: Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair, all languid chutzpah in three-piece Glen plaid; Cary Grant in North by Northwest, in which attempted death-by-crop- spraying does little to dent his urbane insouciance (or that of his immaculate tailoring); and Alain Delon, whose place in the pantheon rests chiefly on two performances. In 1960’s Plein Soleil, he played the first screen version of Patricia Highsmith’s sociopathic-yet-seductive anti-hero Tom Ripley, cutting a murderous swathe through the Italian Riviera in flannel suits, artfully draped Shetland sweaters and wantonly unbuttoned chambray shirts.
“His almost unearthly perfection is creepy in itself, as if he is imitating a human being,” wrote The Guardian’s film critic Peter Bradshaw of Delon. Seven years later, in Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic gangster-noir Le Samouraï, he played cipher-like hitman Jef Costello, silent and enigmatic in a trilby and buttoned-up trenchcoat. “With his collar raised high and hat lowered just so, Delon... [projected] such professionalism and cool that he makes just walking from one place to another seem daring,” marveled a critic in British Esquire.
“His almost unearthly perfection is creepy in itself, as if he is imitating a human being,”
It was thanks to performances like these, where he honed his patented self-absorbed loner persona, that Delon was tagged as French cinema’s answer to James Dean, and with his perfectly sculpted face — all knife-edge cheekbones and sensitive mouth — he embodied the new broodingly dangerous/vulnerable screen-hero paradigm as effectively as Dean and Marlon Brando did across the Atlantic. Delon was also the perfect figurehead for the jump-cut existentialist experimentation of the nascent French new wave — so much so that he was the highest-paid French film star from the early ’60s right through to the mid-’80s — and his ambivalent élan is perennially embedded in pop culture.