Alain Delon is probably the most recognizable Frenchman in the world, and an icon of 20th-century international cinema. He’s been called the male Brigitte Bardot, the “silver-screen siren,” and the “sexiest actor alive.” Over his six-decade career, he’s inhabited a wide range of roles, from Burt Lancaster’s upstart nephew in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) to a sex-crossed lover in Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1969), to a calculating art dealer in Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein (1976). He’s appeared in nearly 100 films, including 1960’s Purple Noon—an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley—which he starred in at just 25.

Delon receives an honorary Palme d’Or award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

After being awarded a César (France’s equivalent of the Oscar), the Légion d’Honneur, and an honorary Palme d’Or, Delon announced he was officially quitting the screen. Now, at 87, he’s decided to sell his 81-piece art collection, which includes a portrait by Eugène Delacroix and paintings by Paolo Veronese and Raoul Dufy. —Elena Clavarino

MICHAEL HAINEY: A former waiter and navy veteran, Alain Delon tagged along with an actor friend to the Cannes Film Festival in 1956, where a colleague of the American film producer David O. Selznick noticed him; Selznick offered him a contract if he learned English. Rather than go to America, Delon stayed in Paris, and three years and a few small roles later landed the lead in René Clément’s mesmerizing adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s masterpiece of suspense The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Purple Noon was not Delon’s first film. Be Beautiful but Shut Up [1958] and Women Are Weak [1959]—titles that could be interpreted as the Frenchman’s acting notes—came before. But it was the film that catapulted the 25-year-old to stardom.

PAUL SCHRADER: I screened Purple Noon for Richard Gere before American Gigolo. I said, “Look at this guy. The way he walks. He knows the room is a better place because he just entered it.”

Delon in 1960’s Purple Noon, directed by René Clément. The film was inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s book The Talented Mr. Ripley, and in turn inspired the movie of the same name, starring Matt Damon.

HAINEY: “You can’t take your eyes off him” is an overused phrase when it comes to judging a performance. But with Delon’s performance in this film, the words are completely true. From the moment he first appears on-screen, as the young American Tom Ripley, he casts a spell on us—his eyes shimmering bright and blue as the Mediterranean in the August sun. You’re not only seduced by him, you find yourself being pulled beneath the surface, longing to know what is behind those eyes. What is he thinking? Delon made the role entirely his own.

He’s stylish, seductive, mysterious. In quick succession he’d be sought by the titans: Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, Melville, and Malle. He would own the 60s, defining international stardom and a new generation of leading man.

CLAUDIA CARDINALE: The first time I acted with Alain Delon was in Rocco and His Brothers [1960], by Luchino Visconti. Alain was a perfect blend of delicate, feminine beauty and masculinity. He had both sweetness and danger within him.

NICOLAS RAPOLD: Looking great, feeling blah: it’s a paradox of Antonioni’s cinema that characters bear the full weight of the modern world but are also incredibly stylish and seductive. L’Eclisse [1962], starring Delon and Monica Vitti in a doomed romance, might even excel the rest of the director’s 60s alienation trilogy, L’Avventura [1960] and La Notte [1961], in this regard. Delon cuts a dashing figure as a Rome stockbroker with an Alfa Romeo, the actor in his youthful prime right after Rocco and His Brothers and Purple Noon. Vitti, playing a literary translator post-breakup, balks at the postwar materialism around her, yet the sensitivity of her gaze, her poise, is simply heart-stopping.

Delon and Monica Vitti in Italy in 1961. They would star in 1962’s L’Eclisse, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.

The two, Piero and Vittoria, keep circling one another during their many rendezvous, and it’s hard not to marvel at the lovely rhythms of their choreography just as much as the haunted, off-kilter backdrops of the city. But so often their courtship seems on the verge of not happening. Vittoria’s summing-up of their affair is rightfully a classic: “I wish I loved you more, or not at all.”

In the end, both Piero and Vittoria don’t show up to their usual meeting place. L’Èclisse concludes with a celebrated montage of deserted streets and palazzos, building up to portraits of distrait Romans—a woman waiting for a bus, another looking exhausted, a man obscured by a newspaper [headline: the nuclear arms race]. You feel the profound absence of Piero and Vittoria—and Delon and Vitti, stars who could shine through the clouds.

Delon and Claudia Cardinale on the set of The Leopard.

CARDINALE: Alain was a magnetic being, both in terms of his beauty and his aura. He infused everything with strength and intensity. Working with him meant absorbing some of that intensity. We were immensely fortunate to portray a couple that entered into the collective imagination, that of Tancredi and Angelica. Sharing the adventure of The Leopard bound us forever.

The filming was unlike any other filming. It was hot, we were in Sicily, in period costumes, and the locations were breathtaking. Luchino Visconti left nothing to chance. For him, every detail contributed to the whole. He pushed it to the point of the invisible. Alain and I were both very close to Luchino even before filming began. He had a very affectionate regard for us. Both Alain and I came from humble backgrounds, and Luchino brought us into an unknown world.

I remember magical moments outside of the film, too. The intensity of the work was such that moments of relaxation were true paradises. And then we were in Sicily, by the sea…. We were young, we laughed, we had fun.

MARINA CICOGNA: In 1963, Alain left a note under the door of a hotel room that I was sharing with Ljuba Rizzoli in Megève. The note said: “I’ll be waiting for you in room 104.” The recipient was missing. I snatched the note from Ljuba’s hands and hurried there myself. I was the infatuated young girl captivated by a legend, floating suspended in another dimensions.

“Alain was a perfect blend of delicate, feminine beauty and masculinity. He had both sweetness and danger within him.”

SHIRLEY MACLAINE: While we were filming The Yellow Rolls-Royce [1964] around Europe, Alain was very—Europeanly—nice, polite, and very thoughtful. He was struggling with English, of course. But he was so nice, very nice and very professional. I once left my purse somewhere, and he went and found it for me. He was a caretaker on many levels.

Delon and Shirley MacLaine in a scene from 1964’s The Yellow Rolls-Royce, directed by Anthony Asquith.

I’ll tell you what will never die in my memory. After the picture, we were in … I’m trying to remember what country … and we needed to get to the South of France, and I had to be there in a day. Alain actually said, “Come on, I’ll drive you.” So we got in the car and we spent, I guess, five hours in the car overnight, him driving, me saying nothing at his command—you know, “You mustn’t interrupt me. I have to keep concentration,” he said. He drove well over 100 miles an hour through mountain passes.

CARDINALE: We played impossible lovers in The Centurions, directed by Mark Robson [1966]. Alain used his beauty in the service of diligent and attentive work. He was always fully involved in his roles.

ANOUCHKA DELON: Undoubtedly, my all-time-favorite movie with my father is The Sicilian Clan [1969]. During our childhood, our father was cautious about exposing us to his excessively violent films. Along with The Black Tulip [1964] and Zorro [1975], this one was among the ones we were allowed to see.

Directed by Henri Verneuil, this French-Italian gangster film stars the iconic trio Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and, of course, my father. To me, The Sicilian Clan embodies the essence of a true adventure movie. The gripping narrative of a daring plane heist that unexpectedly culminates with a dramatic landing on an American highway still fills my eyes with wonder to this very day! It serves as a precursor to later masterpieces like Goodfellas or Ocean’s Eleven, and is one of the pioneering French films centered around the Sicilian Mafia.

I must confess, I have seen it at least 350 times. This film will forever hold a special place in my heart.

JEAN PIGOZZI: In La Piscine [1969], there’s the beautiful pool, the beautiful lights, the beautiful mediterranean. My experience is unique; I sleep at night on the sets of these films.

ALESSANDRA STANLEY: Imitation can be creative. Be it Sergio Leone and his 1960s spaghetti Westerns or Jean-Pierre Melville, who around the same time added French cool to the classic Hollywood 1930s film noir, something was gained in translation. Both directors brought a 1960s sensibility to their chosen genre, but, more interestingly, both relied on actors whose delicate beauty clashed with the sordid milieu and the brutal violence of their actions. Leone had Clint Eastwood. Melville had Alain Delon.

Delon on the set of 1967’s Le Samouraï, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.

In Le Samouraï [1967], Delon is arguably at his bad-boy best, a rootless, enigmatic lone wolf, a hired killer who traffics in the criminal underworld of Paris, and who seems to care about nothing and speaks even less. But he has his own oblique code of honor, like a Japanese samurai warrior of old, and he ends up coming to the rescue of two beautiful women—at a terrible cost. Le Samouraï is considered a gem of the French New Wave, and it is. But it is impossible to watch Delon in this hard-boiled film and not feel a frisson of warmth: however cold and disconnected the role, Delon can’t help but be seductive in it.

FARRAN SMITH NEHME: Perhaps Delon cites Mr. Klein as a personal favorite because the movie shows off his underrated emotional range. Mr. Klein turns the clichéd relationship between Delon and his films—the icy star of the thriller—on its head. Losey’s direction remains chilly and enigmatic, even as the title character becomes ever more unhinged. Delon never gave a more disturbing performance.

CARDINALE: I remember that people queued up to see Alain. From aristocratic women to working-class women, even men … it was quite surreal.

Alain Delon’s art collection will be sold at Bonhams Cornette de Saint Cyr, in Paris, on June 22

Elena Clavarino is the Senior Editor at AIR MAIL