That Alain Delon figures prominently in several of the titles featured at the American Cinematheque’s new series of vintage French crime films is no surprise. The now-78-year-old male accessory magnate and former Smiths record-sleeve cover boy was one of the most iconic movie stars of the 1960s: the O.G., if you will, of the Nouvelle Vague.
Although he was best known for his collaborations with Jean-Pierre Melville, Delon’s facility with English — a skill mandated by a contract he signed with David O. Selznick early in his career — led to opportunities on the other side of the Atlantic. Actually, Once a Thief (1965) finds Delon’s ex-con living just off the Pacific, in idyllic San Francisco; he’s got the requisite beautiful family (including va-va-voom wife Ann-Margret) and designs on the good life. But just when he thinks he’s gotten out, his crime-boss brother (Jack Palance) — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — tries to pull him back in, framing him for one heist and blackmailing him into another. The contrast between Delon’s sullen, minimalist cool and Ann-Margret’s unbound hysteria is jarring, but director Ralph Wilson keeps the pot boiling nicely, and Zekial Marko’s script is peppered with strange and funny details, like the origins of the gastrointestinal difficulties suffered by the dogged cop (Van Heflin) on Delon’s case.
Once a Thief animates a familiar scenario with some style, but Joy House (1965) is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. This largely forgotten thriller by genre maestro Rene Clement (who famously directed Delon in Purple Noon) tingles with oddness from first frame to last — starting with the fact that it’s an English-language film set in the French countryside (rendered overpoweringly tactile by ace D.P. Henri Decae). Delon stars as a lady-killer on the run from some real killers taking marching orders from a vengeful cuckold, whereupon he’s taken in by a pair of leggy Good Samaritans (Lola Albright and Jane Fonda) whose labyrinthine beach house conceals no shortage of secrets. Albright works a scary, pitch-black widow groove, but it’s Fonda, almost impossibly luscious and oscillating wryly between kittenish ingenuousness and clawed calculation, who owns the film — entirely appropriate considering the final, amusingly gothic plot twist. (American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre; thru Sun., Oct. 28. American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre; Thurs.–Sun., Nov. 1–4. www.americancinematheque.com)