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The perils of trans-national stardom: Alain Delon in Hollywood cinema

La dangereuse gloire trans-atlantique: Alain Delon dans le cinéma Hollywoodien
Ginette Vincendeau

Texte intégral

  • 1 This chapter is a much-expanded version of a lecture delivered at the SCMS Annual Conference, the I (...)
  • 2 Henri Langlois, cited in Emmanuel Haymann, Alain Delon, Splendeurs et mystères d’une superstar, Lau (...)
  • 3 For an examination of Alain Delon’s French career, see Ginette Vincendeau, ‘Jean-Paul Belmondo and (...)
  • 4 Heymann, Alain Delon, Splendeurs et mystères d’une superstar, p. 75.

1Alain Delon was one of the biggest French stars to emerge in the post-war period, his notoriety sufficient to justify a festival of his films at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in March 1964, before he had reached the age of 30.1 Henri Langlois, the Cinémathèque’s director, celebrated him as ‘our top young French actor’, praising him for his commitment to ‘quality’ cinema.2 Indeed, the star had made his name in three seminal Italian art films – Luchino Visconti’s Rocco e I suoi fratelli/Rocco And His Brothers (1961) and Il gattopardo/The Leopard (1962), and Michaelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse/The Eclipse (1962) – as well as two high-profile French thrillers, René Clément’s Plein soleil (1960) and Henri Verneuil’s Mélodie en sous-sol (1962).3 Launching a trend that would prove long lasting, the latter film also secured for Delon massive following in Japan. Like many European stars before and after him however, Delon yearned for the ultimate proof of stardom, Hollywood. In August of that year, he thus boarded the transatlantic liner France bound for New York with his pregnant wife Nathalie, eventually settling in Beverly Hills. Upon arrival, he declared, among other things, that he wanted to be the ‘new Gary Cooper’.4

  • 5 The novelist also under the name of ‘John Trinian’ (his real name was Marvin Leroy Schmoker).
  • 6 Universal Studio Publicity book for Texas Across the River (consulted at the BFI Library, London), (...)

2For a while, Delon and Nathalie (who gave birth to their son Anthony on 28 September) lived the glamorous life of Hollywood expatriates, and there were discussions of possible films for MGM, with whom he had a contract, including two directed by Sam Peckinpah. However, these and other projects collapsed and Delon’s first film was a modest thriller, Once a Thief (1965) directed by Ralph Nelson. The film was co-produced by the French producer Jacques Bar, who had also produced Mélodie en sous-sol, both films being based on novels by the same American crime writer.5 Delon quickly broke up with MGM, but made two more Hollywood films the following year, Lost Command (shot in Spain) and Texas Across the River, both released in 1966. In the end, despite his extremely handsome looks and charismatic screen presence, he did not fulfil his stated ambition to ‘become an international star and to make at least two pictures a year in Hollywood’.6 Drawing the lessons of this disappointing experience, he returned to France in April 1966.

3Later, Delon made two further American films, Scorpio (1973) and The Concorde … Airport ’79 (1979), neither of which would have much impact on his reputation. Yet, at the time, he boasted, in typical immodest fashion to Ciné-Revue:

  • 7 Alain Delon, ‘La France est colonisée par le cinema américain!’, Ciné-Revue, Vol 59, Nº 42, 18 Octo (...)

I have always benefitted from a privileged relationship with American studios. […] I went there, recently as well as 15 years ago, with a star contract in my pocket. I am the only Frenchman in this position. Charles Boyer, Louis Jourdan and even Maurice Chevalier were, at one time or another, tied to a studio or a producer. I, on the other hand, knew what I was going to shoot and I had no other obligation.’7

4When the interviewer pointed out that the films he shot in America were less successful than his French ones, he put it down to

  • 8 Ibid.

French chauvinism […] It is a fact: French people don’t like me going to work abroad. I had a major disappointment with Scorpio, probably one of the best action films I shot. And it was the same for Lost Command.’8

  • 9 Ticket sales were: 1,052,001 for Scorpio and 1,147,509 for Texas Across the River; 4,383,331for Los (...)

5Interestingly, this statement is contradicted by box-office figures: Texas Across the River and Scorpio sold more than 1m tickets in France while Lost Command’s 4m put it fourth in the 1966 French box-office rankings.9 What Delon really means is that critically his Hollywood films did nothing to enhance his star status at home, and nor did they open the doors to American stardom. This is in contrast to his continued success in his French films: after his mid-1960s American episode his stardom reached new heights with such hits as Le Samouraï (1967), La Piscine (1969), Le Clan des Siciliens (1969), Le Cercle rouge (1970) and Borsalino (1970).

  • 10 George Kennedy (Delon’s co-star in the film), ‘The real star of the picture is the Concorde’. Photo (...)

6In trying to understand Delon’s lack of success in Hollywood, there are basic immediate points to consider. First of all there is the quality and status of the films themselves which, Delon’s point about French chauvinism to the contrary, got a worse critical reception abroad than in France itself. Another consistent factor is that in all of these films he is overshadowed by his American co-star: Jack Palance in Once a Thief, Dean Martin in Texas Across the River, Anthony Quinn in Lost Command, Burt Lancaster in Scorpio, and George Kennedy in The Concorde … Airport ’79, not to mention the aeroplane itself, by common consent the ‘real star’ of the movie.10 But there are more complex reasons for Delon’s failure to achieve trans-national stardom in his Hollywood films. These have to do both with the context of European actors’ emigration to Hollywood and with the difficulties Delon had in transferring his star persona from his French films to a set of movies that cover the spectrum of American genres: a heist movie (Once a Thief), a Western (Texas Across the River), a war film (Lost Command), a spy movie (Scorpio) and an action/disaster movie (The Concorde … Airport ’79), films which on the whole have elicited little critical comment, in relation to Delon or otherwise.

French masculinity in Hollywood: two successes, many failures

  • 11 See Alastair Phillips & Ginette Vincendeau (eds.), Journeys of Desire: European Actors in Hollywood(...)

7Within the very large corpus of European actors who over the history of cinema crossed the Atlantic to seek fortune in Hollywood,11 some recurring trends have emerged. There is a minority of European actors who became major Hollywood stars (Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Arnold Schwarzenegger). There is a larger band of those who became stars but in specific genres (e.g. Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff in the horror film) or dependable major character actors or even minor stars (Claude Rains, Louis Jourdan, Peter Ustinov, Hedy Lamarr, Hugh Grant, Antonio Banderas). There is a third, larger group of actors who played small, often uncredited, character parts, in roles usually based on national stereotypes – Italian waiters, French maids, British army officers, etc. The fourth, most poignant category, is that of actors who were major stars in their own countries, but failed to make a mark in Hollywood – a long litany of names that includes: Ivan Mosjoukine, Isa Miranda, Jean Gabin, Gracie Fields, Marcello Mastroianni, Hildegarde Kneff, Emmanuelle Béart, and of course Delon.

8Delon’s lacklustre American career thus forms part of a long history, in which differences in economic power and in working practices between Hollywood and the film industries of Europe inhibited smooth translation to international stardom. A number of interpretations have been put forward to account for this phenomenon, ranging from paranoia to ‘Darwinian’ pessimism. The paranoid scenario has Hollywood attract European actors, and then deliberately ruin their reputation and career with ludicrously inadequate parts in mediocre films, in order to weaken the European film industries ; simultaneously Hollywood blocked the import of foreign films and enhanced the export of its own on the international market. Delon, speaking as a producer, temporarily espoused this view:

  • 12 Alain Delon, ‘La France est colonisée par le cinéma américain!’, op. cit., p. 35.

The American policy is protectionist … as well as expansionist. They have always protected and helped their film industry. They boosted the exhibition of their films abroad. And we received this manna with open arms. But they closed their doors to our films12

  • 13 Richard Abel, The Red Rooster Scare, Making American Cinema, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University o (...)

9(and, he could have added, our stars). The ‘Darwinian’ scenario portrays a Hollywood free-market jungle in which those who adapt succeed and those who don’t are ruthlessly eliminated. In between are more complex instances of a trans-national dialectic in which Hollywood seeks otherness to spice up its films with a combination of national and gender stereotypes, while shoring up its construction of a ‘core’ American identity – a process put in place in the silent era, as Richard Abel has shown.13 In this respect, national stereotypes for European actors are both an advantage and a handicap and success depends on a fine line between exoticism and assimilation. With respect to Delon, it is also worth looking at a further specificity, that of French male actors in Hollywood.

  • 14 See Alastair Phillips, ‘Changing bodies/changing voices’, success and failure in Hollywood in the e (...)
  • 15 See Ginette Vincendeau, ‘“Not for Export”: Jean Gabin in Hollywood’; and Hilary Radner, ‘Louis Jour (...)
  • 16 The ability of Marion Cotillard to obtain parts in high-profile Hollywood films, following her acti (...)
  • 17 The Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 32, Nº 382, November 1965, p. 168.
  • 18 Heymann, Alain Delon, Splendeurs et mystères d’une superstar, p. 78

10Historically there have been only two major French emigré success stories in Hollywood: Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer. Both were linked to the stage: knowing how to project your voice, especially in a foreign language, was crucial especially in the early days of sound cinema ; thus Alastair Phillips contrasts the success of Boyer (who was stage trained) and the failure of Annabella (who was not).14 Similarly, the non-breakthrough of Jean Gabin in Hollywood, as opposed to the success of Louis Jourdan, can be seen through the same prism.15 Although Delon did occasional theatre work, he had no stage training. To this should be added the issue of language, where French actors do poorly compared to their Scandinavian and German counterparts (although this may be changing now16). The Monthly Film Bulletin rightly points out that ‘Delon looks unhappy speaking English’17 in Once a Thief ; similarly his accent in Texas Across the Border is stilted. The star himself concurred with this view, attributing his lack of success in part to the ‘language problem’.18 In these films his character is explicitly foreign, respectively Italian and Spanish, and yet this narrative explanation for his accent is not sufficient to make his use of English transparent to the spectator, thus confirming that diction here is as much a problem as language proficiency.

11Beyond language, sexual identity is also important. Chevalier, Boyer and another relatively successful French actor in Hollywood, Louis Jourdan, all projected in their American films a romantic, sexualised and almost ‘feminised’ vision of masculinity. This is what Hilary Radner calls, in respect of Jourdan, ‘hyper-sexuality’, which she links to a wider cultural perception of Frenchness:

  • 19 Hilary Radner, ‘Louis Jourdan – The “Hyper-sexual” Frenchman’, in Alastair Phillips & Ginette Vince (...)

During Hollywood cinema’s classical era, French culture evoked notions of sensual laissez-faire in opposition to the ideological dominance of the US’s Protestant work ethic. We may therefore ask whether American audiences were more forgiving of this quality in French male actors such as Chevalier, Boyer and Jourdan than in, say, American stars like Henry Fonda.’19

12This ‘hyper-sexuality’ was part of the French stereotype, but in the 1930s and 1940s, it was well suited to dominant genres such as the musical, the risqué comedy and the woman’s film. Delon’s star persona, too, may be characterised as ‘hyper-sexual’. His Italian and French films of the 1960s and 1970s dwell on the physical attractiveness of his face and body, and their mise-en-scène constructs him unambiguously as the object of the gaze. It seems however that the transfer of this persona to his Hollywood films was not unproblematic.

Delon in American action cinema

  • 20 Heymann, Alain Delon, Splendeurs et mystères d’une superstar, p. 154.

13Out of Delon’s five Hollywood films, the first three, Once a Thief, Texas Across the River and Lost Command, were made in the mid-1960s, when his image from his European films was based on his youth and exceptional good looks. He was a male erotic icon attractive to both male and female characters, endowed with a cool aura of danger as well as modernity. Scorpio, made six years later in 1973, takes stock of Delon’s more mature image, and his greater specialisation within the thriller genre, in particular with the impact of his roles in Le Samouraï and Le Cercle rouge – leading to a harder image and a more minimalist performance style. Delon’s last film, The Concorde … Airport ’79, was made when his star was beginning to fade. His motivation for making the film, which he took as ‘an amusement rather than a stage in his career’, was in any case, allegedly, a patriotic desire to promote an aeroplane that was ‘the symbol of Franco-British genius’, thus challenging the Americans who had for a while blocked it on their territory.20

Once a Thief

14Ralph Nelson’s film, set and shot in San Francisco, is a heist movie with social commentary, as signalled by its title which consists of the first part of the proverb ‘once a thief, always a thief’. Once a Thief is an adaptation of a novel by Zekial Marko, a crime writer with personal links to the underworld (and who appears in a cameo part in the film). Delon plays Eddie Pedak an Italian immigrant and ex-con now going straight, working as a lorry driver and living with his beautiful Kristine (Ann Margret) and daughter Kathy (Tammy Locke). Hounded on one side by policeman Mike Vido (Van Heflin), he is forced into one last heist when his older brother Walter (Jack Palance) returns into his life. The robbery, which consists of stealing platinum from his former employer, is successful, but predictably Delon dies in the bloody aftermath, as do Walter and his acolytes. The film’s generic blend shows in the way it alternates crime scenes shot in noir style, including the tense sequence of the heist, with socially conscious sequences shot in daylight and a more documentary style, such as some of Eddie’s family moments, and the moment when he visits the unemployment office after he has been sacked. The ‘social’ tone is also set by the opening credit sequence in a seedy nightclub, to the sound of intense jazz drumming, in which various marginal types are pointedly shown, including drug users and dealers, designed to suggest San Francisco’s contemporary mixture of low life and alternative culture.

  • 21 Richard Dyer discusses the issue of the ‘fit’ between star and character in his book Stars, London: (...)

15 There are three main reasons why Once a Thief, while not devoid of originality and interest, is an imperfect fit21 for Delon, compared to his French and Italian films. The first is that its generic hybridity finds an uneasy echo in his character, half angelic delinquent ‘with a heart of gold’, whose redemption is signified by his blonde wife and child, and half hard-core, doomed criminal (‘once a thief…’). The redemptive theme, widespread in American crime films but mostly absent from French variants, clashes with Delon’s star persona, based on the suggestion of an innate dangerous quality. The second reason is that as a character, and consequently as a performer, Eddie is the ‘weakest link’. He is the little brother, feminised by his association with his wife and daughter, dwarfed by the charismatic and ruthless Walter who calls the shots, surrounded by two psychopathic sidekicks. Eddie’s limited part in the action shows in the fact that he only decides to take part in the heist because he has been framed by Walter, and because he feels the need to assert his masculinity over his wife when he discovers that she works as a revealingly attired waitress in a sexy bar. Similarly Delon as an actor seems frail compared to the large and swaggering Palance, who has better command of space and language.

  • 22 A.H. Weiler, ‘Melodrama opens at neighborhood houses’, The New York Times, 9 September 1965, http:/ (...)

16 The latter is the third reason for the bad fit between the part and Delon’s star persona. The film contains sections where Eddie/Delon is called upon to deliver relatively lengthy chunks of dialogue, which clearly test the actor. As the New York Times reviewer put it, ‘Playing a native of Trieste in this, his first American film, Mr. Delon has the opportunity of speaking both in accented English and Italian, neither of which is particularly effective’.22

17It does not help that the dialogue contains slang, which only accentuates Delon’s difficulties. It is also the case that, as for Gabin in his wartime American films, the verbosity sits uneasily with Delon’s normally more laconic persona. The contrast with Mélodie en sous-sol, a hugely successful adaption from the same novelist, clearly demonstrates the difficulties in transferring the actor’s persona, even within the same genre. His next film, by working within a genre most distanced from European cinema, only enhanced the problem.

Texas Across the River

  • 23 The film was in the top 20 films of 1966, grossing $ 4,5m in 2 months. Variety, 4 January 1967, p. (...)
  • 24 Variety, 14 September 1966, emphasized: ‘the name of Dean Martin for marquee voltage’.
  • 25 The Monthly Film Bulletin (Vol. 34, Nº 402, July 1967, p. 110) reviewed Texas Across the River nega (...)

18Michael Gordon’s Texas Across the River is a spoof Western in which Delon plays Don Andrea Baldezar, a Spanish aristocrat on the run (because of some comic dispute with American army officers on his wedding day in Louisiana), who teams up with a tough guy (Dean Martin) escorting weapons to Texas. Although the film now has no critical status as a Western, it did well at the US box-office.23 Texas Across the River gathered positive reviews in the American press, which emphasized its strong popular appeal located in the genre of a comic Western and Dean Martin’s name,24 though it clearly did not go down so well outside the USA.25

19Of the films under discussion this, as a Western, is the most ‘foreign’ generically to a French actor. Accordingly, Delon’s character is made doubly foreign – a French actor playing a Spanish aristocrat. His character is both innocent and a fool. The chivalry code he obeys is ridiculed as ineffective (all it does is get him into trouble) and un-American, constantly paralleled to Dean Martin’s macho cowboy. This is reinforced by the fact that Martin ends up with the white woman who originally was engaged to Delon, while Delon is paired with the ‘native’ Indian-American Lonetta played by American-French actress Tina Marquand.

20Delons’ looks are modified in a manner similar to Gabin’s in his wartime films and in a way which parallels the attempt to externalise and emphasize what in the French films is normally interiorised and minimal. There is a histrionic aspect to the performance which clearly also goes with the effort to project the voice in an unfamiliar language. Here, Delon’s bouffant hair and nickname ‘baldy’, his frequent flashy smile, his red scarf, and the occasional display of his body, all emphasize a prettiness which contrasts with Martin’s ruggedness and the ease with which he wears his cowboy outfit. Thus in this way too Delon is repeatedly made ‘foreign’ to the body of the film. In the Universal studio press book, one poster shows Martin on the left upright in cowboy gear, his revolver erect, while Delon appears in a bubble (on a par with the Indian chief and the white woman) with the tag ‘Half French, half Texan, All lover !’ – a phrase incidentally which clearly refers to the actor rather than the character since the latter is meant to be Spanish. Although the press book states that, ‘The handsome foreign actor then gave Hollywood a surprise by doing most of his own physical action’, it undermines this with an anecdote about him misunderstanding the expression ‘hell for leather’ and the statement that he is ‘confused by the English language, which he has only learned for three years’.

Lost Command

21Produced by Columbia, Lost Command was directed by Mark Robson, and shot in Spain on a large budget. It was based on Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel Les Centurions. The film follows a regiment of paratroopers from Indochina, where they are part of the rout of the French army at Dien Bien Phû in 1954, and then to Algeria where they take part in combat in the mountains as well as in the so-called ‘battle of Algiers’. Anthony Quinn plays Colonel Raspeguy, a tough and charismatic man from a rural background in the Basque country, who has risen through the ranks. In his paratroopers regiment are Captain Esclavier (Delon) who is also a military historian, an idealist who is contrasted to the cynical and brutal Boisfeuras (Maurice Ronet).

  • 26 ‘P.S.’, Télérama, 23 octobre 1966.
  • 27 Variety, 4 January 1967, p. 8.
  • 28 ‘Philip Dine, ‘Trois regards étrangers: “Les Oliviers de la justice” de James Blue, “La bataille d’ (...)

22Lost Command is one of the few films of the 1960s to address directly the Algerian war and thus unsurprisingly it aroused controversy in France. Many reviewers likened Quinn’s character to real life models such as General Massu and except in a few right-wing newspapers the film evoked unfavourable comparisons with The Battle of Algiers, which had come out shortly before, alongside which it was condemned as a ‘historical caricature’.26 Among other things, many pointed out the implausibility of Esclavier’s casual attitude to the military hierarchy. The two female interludes – between Raspeguy and Natalie de Clairefons (Michèle Morgan), and between Esclavier and Aïcha (Claudia Cardinale) were also especially condemned, though praised in American trade papers such as Variety. Yet, despite these critical attacks, Lost Command attracted over 4m spectators in France. In the USA, it figured in the ‘Big Rental Pictures of 1966 ($ 1m in 6 months).’27 For the historian of the Algerian war Philippe Dine, this success was due to the ‘reassuring image of the Algerian war’28 the film projected. Unconcerned with the French political sensitivity to the Algerian issue, American reviews were quite complimentary, while the film critically did less well in the UK. Altogether the actors were praised, especially Quinn but also Delon and Ronet, and several reviewers pointed out Delon’s affinity with the role, since the actor had himself actually fought in the Indochina war.

23Lost Command however is clearly Anthony Quinn’s film, as Raspeguy is the driving force of the story, and Quinn features on the DVD cover, not Delon. Although Delon’s part in this film is more rewarding than in Texas Across the River, it is interestingly contradictory. Esclavier is in many ways a positive character. He foresees the importance of Dien Bien Phû before the others and expresses doubts about the fight in Algeria. He reprimands a racist colleague, objects to the slaughter of Arabs and is against torture (although he may have raped Aïcha – a point disturbingly left unclear by the film). However Lost Command in other ways undermines him. In the battle scenes Raspeguy is at the forefront, and in the final battle Esclavier observes the action with binoculars, highlighting his distance from it. On the single occasion he is in command, his men disobey. Thus, he may have the moral high ground but he is an outsider to the virile values of the paratroopers that are clearly sustained by the film. At one point Raspeguy slaps him ; he replies defiantly, ‘thanks you’ve broken my chains’, but the slap still infantilises him.

  • 29 Pierre Mazars, Le Figaro littéraire, 13 October 1966.

24Like many war films Lost Command is virtually all male, introducing the two women purely to demonstrate heterosexuality. But here too the Quinn/Delon hierarchy prevails : Raspeguy’s romance with the aristocratic Natalie is brief but unequivocal, while Delon’s character, as in Texas Across the River, is linked with the ‘ethnic’ woman (Cardinale playing an Algerian woman). Additionally, his romantic interlude with her is truncated, corrupted by the possibility of rape, and undermined by the fact that unbeknown to Esclavier she is using him as an escort into the Casbah with a handbag full of detonators. Like Dean Martin in Texas Across the River, Anthony Quinn in Lost Command performs rugged, virile masculinity. Delon’s softer features, allied to the more ‘intellectual’ cast of his character, suggest a weaker, more cerebral and ‘feminised’ masculinity. For Le Figaro littéraire, this was inherent in the casting: ‘Robson unfortunately used actors who are more evocative of Saint-Germain-des-Prés dwellers than paratroopers’29 – the reviewer here forgetting the fact that Delon had portrayed a soldier from the Algerian war in L’Insoumis/The Unvanquished, in 1964. The same reviewer also thought that one of the weaknesses of the film was that Mark Robson ‘did not know how to impose Anthony Quinn’s style on the French actors’.

25Thus, while there may be a difficulty on the part of French critics in accepting a French star like Delon in an American action film, the American film itself repeatedly undermines the active part of his role. There is a clash between the demands of a war film and the ‘feminisation’ of Delon, for example through the higher degree of display of his body, both at the Indochina camp, where his shirt is ripped more prominently than that of the other actors, and at the beach scene with Aïcha, where his body in swimsuit is more visible in the frame than hers – by contrast such performance motifs are smoothly incorporated in his French thrillers. In Plein soleil and later in La Piscine (1969) his semi-naked body is adduced to his virility rather than weakening it. Similarly, while immobility is part of the minimalist French thriller style, in the American films it becomes a sign of weakness, a problem particularly overt in Scorpio, as we will see.

Scorpio

26A big-budget spy story directed by Michael Winner and set in Paris, Washington and Vienna, Scorpio tells the story of the relationship between Cross (Burt Lancaster), an experienced CIA operator and a younger, independent hit-man, Scorpio (Delon). Cross is suspected of having gone over to the Russians and Scorpio is instructed to kill him, which, because of his attachment to the older man, he initially refuses to do. Later on he makes a deal that he will kill Cross if he can become fully part of the CIA. He and the CIA track Cross down to Vienna, where he is in hiding with Zharkov, an old friend and Soviet spy (Paul Scofield). In the game of cat and mouse that follows, they end up again in Washington where Scorpio finally kills Cross. He also kills his own mistress when he discovers that she was an Eastern block spy ; immediately after, he is shot by the CIA.

  • 30 The film grossed $ 1.4m in 9 months – by contrast The Poseidon Adventure that year made $ 40m in on (...)
  • 31 Selection of quotes from Film Facts, Vol. 16, Nº 2, 1973, pp. 46-47.
  • 32 For instance Jean Rocheteau in La Croix, 30 April 1973.
  • 33 Michel Perez, Combat, 16 April 1973.
  • 34 Robert Chazal, France-Soir, 12 April 1974.
  • 35 George Morris, The Village Voice, 24 May 1973 (quoted in Film Facts, Vol. 16, Nº 2, 1973, p. 47.

27Scorpio did relatively well at the US box office, though it was far from being a blockbuster30 as well as in France, with just over 1m spectators. However, while its French critical reception was surprisingly positive, Scorpio received a critical thrashing by British and American reviewers: ‘Mind-numbing trash’, ‘Total confusion – pretentious, anachronistic and exasperating’, are examples of reviews.31 Most of the criticism targeted director Michael Winner, while Lancaster, Delon and Scofield were praised for making the film bearable. Reviewers acknowledged Delon and Lancaster as ‘the couple from The Leopard’,32 one thought Delon ‘absolutely remarkable’33 and another saw his character in the light of his Melville films. Comparisons were made with Le Samourai:34 for The Village Voice, ‘Alain Delon further extends his current persona as the Angel of Death in the role of Scorpio’.35

28Despite such praise, however, Scorpio was not to change Delon’s fortunes in Hollywood. Discourses surrounding the making and release of the film did recognise his equal star status to Lancaster, and he was given the title role. Yet, once again the more mobile and rugged American star overshadowed him, just as in Once a Thief, Texas Across the River and Lost Command – and here too it is Lancaster who features on the DVD cover. It is Lancaster who gets to perform the exciting car chase ; generally he is on the move, while Delon is static. The contrast between the two is signaled right from the start of the film, in a scene in which Cross treats Scorpio ‘like a whore’, in the latter’s words, delivering the payoff for a contract killing to a Delon recumbent on a bed, surrounded by cats. The cat motif is bizarrely repeated throughout the film – there are cats even in his hotel bedroom in Washington. There is one exception to Delon’s stasis, that of a long chase between him and Cross in the Vienna metro building site – the press book insisting that both stars did their own stunts.

29Generally, Cross has a more ‘noble’ trajectory: his actions are motivated by wanting to leave spy work and save his wife, and he is distraught when she is shot dead by the CIA. He is also treated to an on-screen tragic death. By contrast Scorpio, who nominally is not a villain, is shown to have no ideal but that of getting a job inside the CIA, and he is shot off screen (while stroking a cat !) as the credits roll. He thus attracts no sympathy, while Cross is characterised as a victim, and has the moral high ground. He also delivers the ‘message’ of the film: ‘no good, no evil, just a game’. Again, as in Lost Command, both male protagonists are given a female partner to signify heterosexuality within an essentially male bonding genre. But while Cross’s relationship is normative (husband and wife), Scorpio’s is, it turns out, both transgressive and undermined by the narrative. It is revealed that his mistress Susan (Gayle Hunnicutt) deliberately picked him up and used him professionally. This reinforces the imbalance between the two male stars : Scorpio’s woman betrays him, Cross’s is faithful – Scorpio’s professional betrayal is thus paralleled by a sexual one.

  • 36 Indeed several reviews made this point: for Le Figaro, 13 April 1974, ‘Delon is still as feline.’

30The sexual aspect of Delon’s star image is also strongly associated with weakness and narcissism. There is a revealing cut in the film when immediately after CIA chief McLeod (John Colicos) says ‘the Frenchman is a loser’, we see Scorpio behind bars, though in fact he is only buying a kitten. The recurrent link to cats is possibly a reference to the bird Delon keeps in his room in Le Samouraï and to the ‘feline’ quality frequently associated with his performance style.36 Yet in Melville’s film, Delon’s feline quality connotes the tiger in the jungle, it has a tragic and mythic quality. In Scorpio he is, by association, literally a kitten. The comparison between Le Samouraï and Scorpio can be taken further, by looking at two mirror scenes: Delon putting a hat on in Melville’s film, Delon looking at himself in the mirror, with a cat, in the American film. Where in Le Samouraï the mirror scene implies a deeper dimension and is an iconic moment of self (mis)recognition, its sense of tragedy reflected in the star’s face, in Scorpio the mirror scene merely denotes the vanity of a pretty boy – indeed the mirror is framed by pictures of himself. Deprived of a mythic or tragic quality, Scorpio is also deprived of the depth of psychology Cross is endowed with. The long scene in Vienna during which Cross and Scofield drunkenly exchange souvenirs (thus giving the characters interiority) has no equivalent with Scorpio ; although it is mentioned that he has a past in the Algerian war, this is never developed.

The Concorde … Airport ’79

  • 37 According to the IMDb, the film grossed $13,015,688 in the USA, against a budget of $14,000,000 (wh (...)

31If the spectacular spy adventure Scorpio did not help Delon’s American career, The Concorde … Airport ’79 was even less likely to do so. The third sequel to the highly successful 1970 Airport film (there were two others in between, in 1975 and 1977), this turned out to be, by common consensus, the unfortunate tail end to a tired formula, and the film did not even recoup its budget at the US box-office.37 Delon plays Captain Paul Metrand, alongside George Kennedy’s Captain Joe Patroni, co-pilots on a Concorde plane en route from Washington to Paris, and then on to Moscow. A complicated plot sees the Concorde under attack from drones and then missiles on the first leg of the journey and the victim of sabotage on the way to Moscow, leading to an unlikely forced landing on a snowfield in the Alps. Passengers scream and tumble as the plane tanks and loops on itself, but both captains demonstrate belief-defying cool. While this is part of the generic formula of the series, it means the film makes few demands on Delon’s acting ; the star is mostly seen strapped at the commands in the cockpit, with the occasional narrowing of the eyes to indicate tension during cataclysmic episodes. The same could be said of Patroni, as well as their unflappable engineer (David Warner), but Delon nevertheless seems constricted next to the more expansive Kennedy, despite the fact that the film is careful to alternate moments when each of them is in charge. Delon is given top billing but viewers familiar with the cult series knew that Kennedy had played Patroni in all four films, and in this respect Delon plays the ‘co-pilot’, and a foreigner too, made to say such lines as ‘Your hair is my French fries’ to his girlfriend Isabelle, the air hostess played by Sylvia Kristel.

Playing ‘Frenchie’

  • 38 Jean-Paul Belmondo, quoted in ‘interview fleuve par les Frères Kruger’, Première, April 1995, p. 72
  • 39 J.P. Lenôtre, ‘“Airport 79 Concorde” en neuf questions à Jennings Lang’, Le film français, Nº 1746, (...)

32Delon’s French rival Jean-Paul Belmondo refused to go to Hollywood because, he said, he knew he would end up playing ‘Frenchies’ rather than getting Steve MacQueen’s roles.38 Delon’s experience suggests he was right. In 1978, Jennings Lang, vice-president of Universal (producer of The Concorde … Airport ’79), recognised Delon’s status in France and in Asia, but acknowledged that his attraction for the American audience was inferior to that of a star like John Travolta or to the film’s ‘superstar’, the Concorde.39 Yet Delon’s American films if they were not top drawer, were not B-productions either. As we saw, his acting was regularly praised, despite his English delivery being a little strained ; this however would not be sufficient as an explanation. So what was ? In addition to the narrative and performative discrepancies discussed above, I will suggest two areas related to differences between French and American cinema, relating to different uses of minimalism and different representations of heterosexual masculinity.

  • 40 Paine Knickerbocker, The New Republic, 19 April 1973, quoted in Film Facts, Vol. 16, Nº 2, 1973, p. (...)
  • 41 Jean-Luc Douin, Télérama, 14 April 1974

33At the time of Scorpio, some American reviewers talked of ‘That marvellous emotional remoteness which Alain Delon brings to a role’.40 Yet, this did not function to enhance his status. Delon’s minimalist performance style appears at best nonchalance (the Télérama reviewer compared ‘the photogenic and nonchalant Alain Delon to the heavy and powerful Burt Lancaster’41) and at worst inactivity, because it is not part of a mise-en-scène style, as in his French films. The French star, as we saw, is unfavourably contrasted to a more physically dynamic, and often taller, American star, associated to unfamiliar screen activities for a French star (horse riding), or, especially in Scorpio, boxed in by the décor, filmed between objects or behind furniture through oblique camera angles.

  • 42 Steve Neale, ‘Masculinity as spectacle’, Screen Vol. 24/6, pp. 2-16; see also Ginette Vincendeau, ‘ (...)
  • 43 Michèle Sarde, Regard sur les Françaises, Paris : Stock, 1983, p.24.

34In his 1980s work on masculinity on screen, Steve Neale talked of the difficulties in representing men as objects of desire within a heterosexual economy of the look, using Delon as one of their examples – a point that, I argue, does not apply to the star in his French films.42 Looking at Once a Thief, Texas Across the River, Lost Command and Scorpio however would tend to confirm Neale’s point. This may be seen in relation to wider perceptions of Frenchness in America – for instance Michèle Sarde’s sociological study showing that French men are generally perceived as ‘effeminate’ in an American context,43 because of their association with women, culture, art and luxury goods. While this was not a problem for Chevalier, Boyer and Jourdan in the more ‘feminised’ melodrama and musical genres, this created a tension in male-bonding American genres such as the thriller, the Western, the war film and spy adventure. I believe the fate of French male actors in Hollywood is linked to such perceptions and the reasons for Delon’s dashed Hollywood career thus lie between the paranoid and the Darwinian scenario discussed above, in the tensions created by different codes of genre, performance and heterosexual masculinity.

  • 44 The Alain Delon cigarettes are manufacted by S.E.I.T.A., the French state-owned tobacco company, bu (...)
  • 45 Benjamin Berton, Alain Delon est une star au Japon, Paris : Hachette, 2009.

35Delon’s trans-national ‘failure’ however must be relativized, first by his continued successful career on the domestic market before, during and after his American episodes. There is also a danger in equating the trans-national with Hollywood. Delon was a superstar in the Far East, especially Japan, leading, among other manifestations, to the development of a range of merchandise available in the region, such as perfume and cigarettes,44 while a 2009 novel (half fictional biography and half thriller) by Benjamin Berton is entitled Alain Delon est une star au Japon (Alain Delon is a star in Japan).45 It is true that Delon did not become the new Gary Cooper, but, as he himself would put it, he was still Delon.

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Notes

1 This chapter is a much-expanded version of a lecture delivered at the SCMS Annual Conference, the Institute of Education, London, 3 April 2005. Since completing the chapter, Mark Gallagher published a piece entitled ‘Alain Delon, International Man of Mystery’ in Russell Meeuf and Raphael Raphael (eds.), TransnationalStardom, International Celebrity in Film and Popular Culture (London: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2013, pp. 77-94). Gallagher’s approach, within the logic of the collection in which it is inserted, seeks to remove Delon from French stardom and see him as a ‘transnational star’, among other things within European co-productions. Thus the two chapters are complementary rather than overlapping.

2 Henri Langlois, cited in Emmanuel Haymann, Alain Delon, Splendeurs et mystères d’une superstar, Lausanne: Favre, 1998, p. 73.

3 For an examination of Alain Delon’s French career, see Ginette Vincendeau, ‘Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon: one smiles, the other doesn’t’, in Stars and Stardom in French Cinema, London, New York: Continuum, 2000, pp. 158-195.

4 Heymann, Alain Delon, Splendeurs et mystères d’une superstar, p. 75.

5 The novelist also under the name of ‘John Trinian’ (his real name was Marvin Leroy Schmoker).

6 Universal Studio Publicity book for Texas Across the River (consulted at the BFI Library, London), p. 3.

7 Alain Delon, ‘La France est colonisée par le cinema américain!’, Ciné-Revue, Vol 59, Nº 42, 18 October 1979, p. 34.

8 Ibid.

9 Ticket sales were: 1,052,001 for Scorpio and 1,147,509 for Texas Across the River; 4,383,331for Lost Command. Source: Simon Simsi (ed.), Ciné-Passions, 7e art et industrie de 1945 à 2000, Paris: Editions Dixit, 2000.

10 George Kennedy (Delon’s co-star in the film), ‘The real star of the picture is the Concorde’. Photoplay, Vol 30, May 1979, p. 45. Jennings Lang (producer) also said, ‘Let’s not forget, the super star is the Concorde’, Le film français, No. 1746, 1st December 1978, p. 13.

11 See Alastair Phillips & Ginette Vincendeau (eds.), Journeys of Desire: European Actors in Hollywood, London: BFI, 2006; see also Dominique Lebrun, Paris-Hollywood: les Français dans le cinéma américain, Paris: Hazan, 1987.

12 Alain Delon, ‘La France est colonisée par le cinéma américain!’, op. cit., p. 35.

13 Richard Abel, The Red Rooster Scare, Making American Cinema, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999.

14 See Alastair Phillips, ‘Changing bodies/changing voices’, success and failure in Hollywood in the early sound era’, Screen, Vol. 43/2, Summer 2002, pp. 187-200.

15 See Ginette Vincendeau, ‘“Not for Export”: Jean Gabin in Hollywood’; and Hilary Radner, ‘Louis Jourdan – The “Hyper-sexual” Frenchman’, in Alastair Phillips & Ginette Vincendeau (eds.), Journeys of Desire, op. cit., pp. , pp. 115-124 and125-132.

16 The ability of Marion Cotillard to obtain parts in high-profile Hollywood films, following her acting Oscar for La Môme/La Vie en rose (2007), is in part attributable to her excellent English.

17 The Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 32, Nº 382, November 1965, p. 168.

18 Heymann, Alain Delon, Splendeurs et mystères d’une superstar, p. 78

19 Hilary Radner, ‘Louis Jourdan – The “Hyper-sexual” Frenchman’, in Alastair Phillips & Ginette Vincendeau (eds.), Journeys of Desire, op. cit., p. 126.

20 Heymann, Alain Delon, Splendeurs et mystères d’une superstar, p. 154.

21 Richard Dyer discusses the issue of the ‘fit’ between star and character in his book Stars, London: BFI, 1998 [second edition] in particular in ‘Stars as characters in films’, pp. 126-131.

22 A.H. Weiler, ‘Melodrama opens at neighborhood houses’, The New York Times, 9 September 1965, http://movies.nytimes.com, accessed 14 April 2013.

23 The film was in the top 20 films of 1966, grossing $ 4,5m in 2 months. Variety, 4 January 1967, p. 8.

24 Variety, 14 September 1966, emphasized: ‘the name of Dean Martin for marquee voltage’.

25 The Monthly Film Bulletin (Vol. 34, Nº 402, July 1967, p. 110) reviewed Texas Across the River negatively, criticising its ‘lack of spontaneity’.

26 ‘P.S.’, Télérama, 23 octobre 1966.

27 Variety, 4 January 1967, p. 8.

28 ‘Philip Dine, ‘Trois regards étrangers: “Les Oliviers de la justice” de James Blue, “La bataille d’Alger” de Gillo Pontecorvo, “Les centurions” de Mark Robson’, CinémAction, Nº 85, 1997, pp. 80-86.

29 Pierre Mazars, Le Figaro littéraire, 13 October 1966.

30 The film grossed $ 1.4m in 9 months – by contrast The Poseidon Adventure that year made $ 40m in one month.

31 Selection of quotes from Film Facts, Vol. 16, Nº 2, 1973, pp. 46-47.

32 For instance Jean Rocheteau in La Croix, 30 April 1973.

33 Michel Perez, Combat, 16 April 1973.

34 Robert Chazal, France-Soir, 12 April 1974.

35 George Morris, The Village Voice, 24 May 1973 (quoted in Film Facts, Vol. 16, Nº 2, 1973, p. 47.

36 Indeed several reviews made this point: for Le Figaro, 13 April 1974, ‘Delon is still as feline.’

37 According to the IMDb, the film grossed $13,015,688 in the USA, against a budget of $14,000,000 (whereas, according to the same source, the first Airport film, made in 1970, had grossed £100,489,150).

38 Jean-Paul Belmondo, quoted in ‘interview fleuve par les Frères Kruger’, Première, April 1995, p. 72.

39 J.P. Lenôtre, ‘“Airport 79 Concorde” en neuf questions à Jennings Lang’, Le film français, Nº 1746, 1 December 1978, p. 13.

40 Paine Knickerbocker, The New Republic, 19 April 1973, quoted in Film Facts, Vol. 16, Nº 2, 1973, p. 48.

41 Jean-Luc Douin, Télérama, 14 April 1974

42 Steve Neale, ‘Masculinity as spectacle’, Screen Vol. 24/6, pp. 2-16; see also Ginette Vincendeau, ‘Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon: one smiles, the other doesn’t’, in Stars and Stardom in French Cinema, op. cit., pp. 158-195.

43 Michèle Sarde, Regard sur les Françaises, Paris : Stock, 1983, p.24.

44 The Alain Delon cigarettes are manufacted by S.E.I.T.A., the French state-owned tobacco company, but only available in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Viet Nam, Burma, Laos, and China.

45 Benjamin Berton, Alain Delon est une star au Japon, Paris : Hachette, 2009.

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Référence électronique

Ginette Vincendeau, « The perils of trans-national stardom: Alain Delon in Hollywood cinema », Mise au point [En ligne], 6 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2014, consulté le 17 octobre 2017. URL : http://map.revues.org/1800 ; DOI : 10.4000/map.1800

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Auteur

Ginette Vincendeau

Professor in Film Studies at King's College London. Her publications include La Haine (2005), Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris (2003) and Stars and Stardom in French Cinema (2000). She co-edited The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks (2009) with Peter Graham and, with Alastair Phillips, A Companion to Jean Renoir (2013) and Journeys of Desire: European Actors in Hollywood (2006). She is the editor of the Cine-Files French Film Guides series and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound.

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Les contenus de la revue Mise au point sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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