The Leopard (1963)

Dir. Luchino Visconti. Starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale

I don’t know that there are many other movies like The Leopard, at least not from the past fifty years. The Leopard would be able to function as a silent movie. Although the three hours are filled with dialogue, much of it seems as decorative as the frescoes at the palace of the Prince of Salina (Lancaster). Only some conversations, like the ones between the Prince and his priest (Romolo Valli) in the early part of the film where the Prince showcases his surprising thoughtfulness, or like the one late in the film where the Prince declines a role in the new government, really matter. And for those, we could have had title cards. With such an international cast, and with that marvelous ’60s Italian dubbing everywhere, a silent movie (with Nino Rota’s music, of course) would have worked just as well. Visconti has a way of framing an image from different angles. Consider the way a splendid dinner is shot, from six or seven different locations across the room; close in on the trio of Tancredi (Delon), Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), and Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), or wide shots from above the table from left and right, or shots in which we are at table-level and can see the Prince, and alternately shots in which we are at table-level and cannot. There’s a marvelous technical movement here, like the retrograde motion of a planet, bumping back and forth between casts of characters and the characters themselves. This command of images – and of the images which are grandiose and remarkable, even for someone who finds much more beauty in Mondrian than Watteau – lends stateliness to the picture even without the portrayal of the noble Prince by Lancaster.

Something that I am glad that Visconti did not carry over from the silent days is the black and white film they used then. The colors which matter are not mostly those of the interiors, which are radiant but not terribly important to the overall effect of the picture, but of exteriors. Sicily is a beautiful place, and where The Godfather, less than ten years later, would provide a snapshot of that burnt orange clay that permeates all images there, The Leopard is a mural of it. There’s a scene in the film, where the Prince and his family are driving out to their summer home at Donnafugata in their carriages, that looks at the land from great distance. The black carriages are like specks, and the rocky hills are that lovely orange, and – I don’t know how Visconti and his crew managed to get this effect, but it’s great – you see the blue behind the hills and it’s hard to know for two full seconds if that’s the sky or the ocean. (It’s the sky.) Mafiosi and banditti and Garibaldini, sure, but to be rich in Sicily in 1860 must have been no small joy.

The three hour runtime of The Leopard, especially for a movie where nothing happens by the standards of contemporary film, seems almost laughable. I suppose one could have a two hour or a 135 minute Leopard, and it would be a good film. But like barbecued pig, which could probably be cooked in the oven in an hour or so but does best smoked over many hours, The Leopard gives its action and its characters real time to develop its most delicious subtleties.

For example, Tancredi begins the film as an idealist, joining Garibaldi’s revolution because it feels like the right thing to do, and because he feels no loyalty to the wimpy lords of Sicily. He is clean-shaven, which is best for Delon’s features, wearing rakish outfits and stupid hats. He is charm itself, and one of the Prince’s daughters, Concetta, has noticed. The change in Tancredi takes time to manifest, but by the end of the movie, bit by bit, he has changed. Joining the regular army and taking rank there has made him forget the wildness and passion of fighting for Garibaldi; at the ball where the last scenes of the film take place, Tancredi’s loyalty is, a little officiously, to the king. He is also engaged to be married to Angelica, who is first of all fabulously beautiful (she is Claudia in 8 1/2), but also very wealthy. Tancredi, who is not at all good with money, falls for her instantly – even though he had been flirting with Concetta. Concetta is dropped so quickly that she practically disappears from the movie; there are probably more mentions of her via Angelica’s “She’s still in love with you” than there are shots of her onscreen in the second half of the film. (Even the man who courts her, a friend of Tancredi’s from Milan, is forgettable.) Tancredi’s position as gentleman warrior evaporates over the space of weeks as he begins to take the road to obsequious opportunist; he grows a stupid little mustache which interrupts his handsome, sleek features.

The Prince is set up from the beginning as a traditionalist; the film starts with him and his family in prayers, and when he gets up, the prayers stop, leading us to believe that the obverse is true as well. He goes later that night to see some paramour (whom we never see again) in the city and takes the priest with him to give him plausible deniability. Yet we recognize the pragmatic genius in him as well. For a hundred years of relevance, far more than a man’s lifetime, he says, a social class would be willing to make great sacrifices and concessions. It obviously pains him that he has to deal with Don Calagero (Paolo Stoppa), a social climber with a smidge of nobility in his veins and a vast fortune that makes his daughter acceptable as Tancredi’s fiancee, but it’s a sacrifice that will give Tancredi opportunity in the future. And it must not be forgotten that when Tancredi comes to him in the beginning of the film to tell him that he’s joining Garibaldi, the Prince gives him leave and gives him money. The Prince is nothing if not shrewd. His ideals are old-fashioned, and he is practical enough to fairly be called unprincipled. But unprincipled is a word for cheats and careerists; the Prince is neither, because when you’re on top there’s no point in cheating anyone, and he has no career other than to be dignified.

I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in Burt Lancaster now or anything, but having seen four of his films across a decade – From Here to EternitySweet Smell of SuccessJudgment at Nuremberg, and The Leopard – in which he plays four fundamentally different men, it’s hard not to be in awe of his range. In the first, he’s the perfect white man for the ’40s: strong, brave, wry, and romantic. In the second, he’s an ugly man in a beautiful suit. In the third, he is regretful and stoic and, incidentally, a supporting actor. In this last, all of it comes together, somehow. He is strong, brave, wry, romantic, beautifully dressed, regretful, stoic, and a teensy bit dirty. Lancaster is still handsome, even with the funny sideburns and mustache, and even if he was in his very late forties when this movie was made. (There’s a scene where he comes out of the bath in front of his priest – he makes fun of the priest, saying something to the effect of, “Naked souls are worse than naked bodies” – and we see that the dude still has abs. Crikey, was he built.) The handsomeness is so important to his star image, because I don’t know that we’ve every seen an actor in America whose head was so nearly a rectangular prism and we probably won’t again. Lancaster’s got striking good looks, and although he wasn’t a giant – at 6’2″, he’d be an undersized point guard in today’s NBA – he manages to tower over just about everyone else in the film. His handsomeness makes him trustworthy. Delon’s does not. Delon is handsome like a fox. Lancaster projects dignity with those looks and that size, and the film never lets you forget it. The silence that gives him power in Judgment at Nuremberg is present in bundles in The Leopard. He is content to let other people talk his ear off, and waits until the end of a conversation to speak; it is usually the end of a conversation because he speaks. He does not need the last word, but he is the last word.

The scene that the film builds up to in the end, after two and a half hours of beautiful settings and meaningful-but-not-too-meaningful conversations, takes place at the ball. Angelica insists on having a dance with the Prince, who is said to have been a great dancer in his youth. Angelica, teasingly, mentions that Tancredi doesn’t really want them to share a dance. (She’s right; the look in his face is the hardest he has all movie.) The Prince – who is not a dirty old man per se, but who certainly recognizes Angelica’s remarkable beauty – declines at first, citing the great temptation he feels as his reason to refuse. But she wears him down.

The two of them share a waltz together, and it’s a fine scene with the same mindset in the camera movement and position that’s present during the aforementioned dinner. The ball, when it concerns the Prince, has been about his aimless lonely sojourn throughout the fine palace where the ball is being held. He won’t eat anything; it’ll give him indigestion. He won’t speak to anyone, really; it just makes him feel lonelier. He looks at the girls at the ball and sees them not as potential conquests but as “frogs.” He sees a painting of a man surrounded by his friends and family at his deathbed. “Will I go like that?” he wonders aloud to Tancredi and Angelica. “No, the sheets will be filthier. Dying people’s sheets are filthy.” The same kind of offhanded wit that makes him about as charming as Tancredi earlier in the film, that informs his belief that a time is coming with leopards and lions like himself will be on the level of jackals and hyenas like Don Calogero, that makes his arguments about the relationship between Mother Church and the aristocracy sizzle, is dark here. It’s not like him at all. He realizes how old he is when the priest tells him that Concetta has fallen for Tancredi, fairly early in the film. He spends the rest of the film feeling that age and recognizing his ensuing decrepitude, both personally and socially. He tries to make some kind of peace with death, so that he can meet it with the same kind of grace that had characterized him throughout his life.

The waltz is the right dance here: circular and steady. And it turns out that the Prince is a wonderful dancer, light on his feet and nimble, maybe even adroit as ever. When the two of them dance, they are the focus of the entire party: everyone has to watch the great Italian beauty (who is as much “Italia” here as she is supposed to be in 8 1/2) and the living ghost of Italian glamour and nobility unite in this sad, luminous moment. The film, characteristically, makes no effort to hurry us through their waltz. It is the payoff of a film that makes its progress and its action not physical but emotional, and what a payoff it turned out to be.

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