The Leopard, a film by Luchino Visconti (1963)

{Ed. Note: A couple weeks back, Books and Vines took a look at the great Italian novel The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. The Leopard is one of the few great works of literature that made the transition to the big screen in a manner which, at least artistically, is not terribly disappointing and, in fact, can stand on its own as a great work. The following film review is a guest article from Robert Bailey, who has contributed previously, especially his excellent review of the film A Walk in the Sun.}

Luchino Visconti had originally gained international recognition as a filmmaker during the period of Italian neorealism, and indeed, his 1943 Ossessione, an unauthorized version of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, is considered the first neorealist film, with its largely non-professional cast, location shooting, and unglamorous depiction of life among the lower classes.  It may seem odd that a school of filmmaking whose subject matter was the lives of the poor, illiterate and disenfranchised should have originated with Visconti, a Milanese Count and son of the Grand Duke of Modrone, whose childhood acquaintances included Gabriele d’Annunzio, and Giacomo Puccini, but Visconti’s aristocratic sympathies could not be long satisfied with such subject matter, and starting with 1954’s Senso, his career moved away from neorealism. In 1963 he found in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a subject matter ideally suited to his temperament.

The Leopard is generally considered Visconti’s masterpiece, and in many respects it probably is.  It is undoubtedly one of the most gorgeous movies ever made (though it must be seen in the original version to really appreciate this—more about that later).  It is based on the finest original source material from which Visconti ever worked, even better than Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (which may, however, be the director’s most personal film). The screenplay is very faithful to the material it adapted from the book–though some important episodes are left out–and Visconti benefitted greatly from the collaborations of two of the finest artists who ever worked in films, composer Nino Rota and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno.

I first saw the film on its release in the US, and I have to say I was disappointed initially.  Though the film was long (seemingly very long at the time), it left out parts of the book that I felt were essential—principally chapter five, Father Pirrone’s visit to his family, and the final two chapters relating the Prince’s death and the Salina family’s final decline.  Also, whereas Lampedusa’s aristocratic sympathies are integral to the novel, his humanity never reduces many of the characters in the novel to caricatures, as the film does frequently.

Without the entire Santino-Angelina episode from chapter five, which mirrors among the lower classes the Angelica-Tancredi relationship among the aristocrats, and is crucial to Father Pirrone’s realization of how similar the peasants and nobility are in their desires, the priest comes off as a clownish figure in the film, just another foil for the Prince.  This is ameliorated to some degree in the original Italian version of the film, which inserts an episode from the missing chapter during the Salina family’s journey to Donnafugata.  At an inn where the Salona party is spending the night, Father Pirrone, in what seems prefatory remarks to a Bible reading, tells some peasants how the aristocrats live in a world of their own, barely touched by events like the Garibaldi invasion and overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy (in the book, he tells this to an old friend—who falls asleep).  Unfortunately, the American version of the film cuts this episode, to the detriment of the priest’s character.

The death of the Prince in the book is an unforgettable episode, though much of the elegiac pathos of the scene, his summing up of his life, the recognition that so much of it was spent frivolously, is implicit in much of his actions and dialog in the rest of the film, especially in the ball scene and his final apostrophe to the morning star “when will you give me an appointment less ephemeral, in your region of perennial certitude?

The final chapter, with its portrait of Fabrizio’s spinster daughters, especially Concetta, the rightful heir of the Salina nobility, is unhappily missing.  In it we see how things have indeed worsened for the upper classes, and learn of Tancredi’s success and death, and see how Angelica has become an amalgam of the Salina’s noblesse oblige and her father’s grasping pragmatism.  We also lose the tantalizing hint, made by a Senator whom Angelica brings on her visit to the Salinas, that Tancredi confided late in his life that he had always loved Concetta, and regretted the (apparently untrue) story he told about breaking into the nun’s convent, which offended her so much, and which was prelude to Tancredi’s wooing of Angelica.  Though Angelica later tells the Senator that Tancredi never felt any passion for Concetta, it is hinted that Concetta’s criticism of Tancredi that evening, and her caustic rebuke to him the next day at the annual visit to the Convent of the Holy Ghost, were the spurs that drove him to pursue Angelica.  We also lose the poignant episode when Concetta throws out the moth-eaten rug made from the fur of the Prince’s beloved dog, Bendicò.  (In the forward to the Folio Society edition of the novel, the story is told how Lampedusa confided to a friend that Bendicò was “the key to the novel”– on the evening before the visit to the Convent of the Holy Ghost, the Prince, who has been worrying about the ignobility of a marriage of economic convenience, caresses the dog, saying “you, Bendicò, are a bit like them, like the stars; happily incomprehensible, incapable of producing anxiety.”  (Fabrizio’s passion for astronomy is another element in the novel that is slighted by the film version.)

The casting is, like the rest of the film, visually impeccable: Paolo Stoppa perfectly embodies the feral opportunism of Cologero, and Claudia Cardinale, as Angelica, is stunningly beautiful while at the same time capable of suggesting coarseness and lack of breeding.  Sometimes she relies too much on tricks (such as the pensive biting of her lower lip and coyly casting her eyes down), but even these are not inconsistent with the character she is playing.  Alain Delon, as Tancredi, is obviously the cynosure of all female eyes, looks splendid and has the graceful bearing of one to the manner born.  He is excellent as the nascent politician in the later scenes, perfectly equanimous at the execution of those Garibaldini, his former comrades, who were captured at Aspromonte. But the native charm, Tancredi’s pre-eminent quality admired by all, seems to elude the actor, and this raises the question why Prince Fabrizio, a true aristocrat in spirit as well as title, is so enthralled by him, seemingly preferring him over his own children.  Visconti apparently begged Warren Beatty to take the role, and those who remember Beatty in his early film roles can well believe that Visconti saw this charm in the actor.

As for Burt Lancaster, he was not even the third choice to play Prince Fabrizio—Nicolai Cherkassov, Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando (?) had already expressed their disinterest, and Visconti was more or less pressured by Twentieth-Century Fox, the American distributor and a significant financial partner, to accept a major American star, and promoted Lancaster, who was transitioning from his swashbuckling days to more thoughtful, challenging roles.  He had been superb as the vicious columnist J.J. Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success, won an Oscar as Elmer Gantry and was nominated for The Birdman of Alcatraz, as well as playing the important role of the tormented jurist in Judgment at Nuremberg.  As Prince Salina, Lancaster looks magnificent—again his build, his bearing, everything is just what one expects. He has a patrician air of entitlement—perhaps even too much of one.  If he is less than perfection in the part, it is because he seems too indomitable, too bound-to-win to be fully convincing as Lampedusa’s tortured aristocrat, in love with the stars and their eternal indifference to the passions of men.  In the novel, when the Princess of Ponteleone greets him at the ball with “your guests (meaning Angelica and her father) haven’t arrived yet,” it is “like a prick on the Prince’s sensitive thumb.”  It is this quality of morbid sensitivity which Lancaster doesn’t quite pull off—although he comes close. Unfortunately, he is hurt in the Italian language version by being dubbed by a voice that lacks the nuances, authority and resonance of his own.

So which version to watch?  Since the depiction of the Prince is central to the movie, one is almost tempted to say the American version so you can fully appreciate Lancaster’s performance.  But in addition to the deletions–the scene of Father Pirrone discussing what makes the nobility so different from rest of the people, and a game of whist between the Salinas and Chevalley in which Tancredi and Paolo terrorize the visitor with stories of Sicilian barbarousness (a scene which, in the novel, takes place on a stroll through Donnafugata without Fabrizio being present)—the American version suffers visually compared to the Italian original: suffers to a degree that makes the Italian version the only one that I would watch again.

For although the film has its faults–the caricature-like depiction of Father Pirrone, the Princess Salina, Colonel Pallavicino (who acts like a buffoon at the ball, though in the novel Fabrizio comes to realize “he was nobody’s fool”), and the less-than-ideally realized characters of Tancredi and Angelica, The Leopard is a magnificent recreation of a long-vanished period, so thoroughly realized down to the slightest detail of costume, set decoration, and even the food served at the banquet, that the viewer feels he has been transported to the past. Only Erich von Stroheim’s Greed has ever approached this level of naturalism.  This is Visconti’s and his production crews’ greatest achievement, helped to an incalculable degree by the cinematographer, the great Giuseppe Rotunno.

The film was shot in Super Technirama, a large format process in which the 35mm film runs horizontally through the camera, rather than vertically, exposing twice the area of the standard motion picture cameras–rather like the classic 35mm still cameras. This larger negative area was combined with lenses that stretched the image one and a half times vertically, which, when unstretched in projection gave a wide aspect ratio, resulting in vast panoramas and the ability to compose scenes in depth, eliminating much of the need for cutting between various angles. This is ideally suited to Visconti’s vision, though it also leads him to dwell on some shots excessively to permit the viewer to savor the minute detail.  Every frame has the quality of an oil painting by a master—but again, you must see the Italian version to fully appreciate this.

The Italian release prints were made by Technicolor Rome, using their dye transfer method whereas the American release prints were made by Deluxe using standard photochemical printing. There has never been a motion picture printing process that was the equal of the Technicolor dye transfer method, whereby the color in the original negative was separated into its cyan, magenta, and yellow components, matrices made from these and then physically transferred onto a black & white print of the film one at a time, in a similar manner to lithography.  Not only did this give an incredible control over the color, but permitted a dense, impenetrable black which could not be achieved by photochemical dye couplers.  Thus the blacks in the American prints of the film are not neutral black, but sometimes greenish or brownish.  And since dye-coupled color film has a limited range of values from dark to light, the American prints seem brighter and flatter overall, and lose the Old Masters quality of the Technicolor version. Here is a comparison taken from the Criterion Collection DVD of both films, the Technicolor version is the upper image in every case:

The Leopard, Technicolor dye transfer method (top) versus Deluxe standard photochemical printing (below)
The Leopard, Technicolor dye transfer method (top) versus Deluxe standard photochemical printing (below)
The Leopard, Technicolor dye transfer method (top) versus Deluxe standard photochemical printing (below)
The Leopard, Technicolor dye transfer method (top) versus Deluxe standard photochemical printing (below)
The Leopard, Technicolor dye transfer method (top) versus Deluxe standard photochemical printing (below)
The Leopard, Technicolor dye transfer method (top) versus Deluxe standard photochemical printing (below)
The Leopard, Technicolor dye transfer method (top) versus Deluxe standard photochemical printing (below)
The Leopard, Technicolor dye transfer method (top) versus Deluxe standard photochemical printing (below)
The Leopard, Technicolor dye transfer method (top) versus Deluxe standard photochemical printing (below)
The Leopard, Technicolor dye transfer method (top) versus Deluxe standard photochemical printing (below)

Though these stills, taken from DVD transfers, can’t begin to do justice to the beauty of a 70mm Technicolor print of the film, they give a fair idea of how much is lost in the American version.  It is to be hoped that some day in the near future a high-definition or even 4K version of the original will be made (please, with Burt Lancaster’s own voice?) and viewers will get a chance to appreciate this magnificent film as the creators intended.

3 thoughts on “The Leopard, a film by Luchino Visconti (1963)

  1. I have never understood why this LEC has not been pursued by LEC collectors. I obtained a copy in the early 90s for $175, Now, it seems to be for sale quite often for around $275, It may be because there is only one illustration, a frontispiece, which I have never understood and Robert says he has never seen. Altogether though, the book is one of the best of the early Shiff era. A $275 price tag should not stop the devoted LEC collector.

    The review of the film by Robert is excellent, especially the comparison of the stills. I know virtually nothing about film processes, but Robert simplifies and explains the two processes quite well. I have seen both versions of the film, English and Italian, and would urge all who own the book to view the Criterion versions.

    With Robert’s knowledge of film and literature, he should be hired to act as art director the next time Arion produces a book with photo stills. The two Arion books I have seen, The Big Sleep and Day of the Locust, as Robert has said, do not have a feel for the eras about which the books have been written. Being a long-time reader of the complete works of Raymond Chandler and Nathaniel West, I found both of the Arion books unsatisfyling in their illustrations. They seem to attempt to illustrate, in each book, what one would expect to be illustrated with photos from someone who has no idea of what the books are about or the time frame in which they were written.

  2. The difference between the Italian 70 mm Technicolor dye transfer method and the American Deluxe standard photochemical printing method is astonishing, the latter giving the individual stills a bleached, garish appearance. Additionally, to my eye it also appears as if there is greater clarity and detail in the 70 mm Technicolor stills, especially in facial features and intricate objects. For example, look at the difference in the very elaborate wall decorations on the left side of the images in the final pair of stills Robert has included. This is such a visual film that I cannot imagine watching the American version.

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