Combustible Celluloid
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With: Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon
Written by: Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Enrico Medioli, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Fanciosa, Luchino Visconti, from the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Directed by: Luchino Visconti
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Italian with English subtitles
Running Time: 185
Date: 03/28/1963

The Leopard (1963)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Leopard Sleeps Tonight

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the most coveted and elusive of all home video releases, Luchino Visconti's The Leopard finally makes its monumental DVD debut in 2004, and it was worth the wait. Presented in a three-disc edition from the Criterion Collection, it's a major title that ranks with Criterion's spectacular Brazil set.

Like many Italian films of the period, The Leopard was shot using actors from all different countries speaking several different languages. The end result would be dubbed into whatever language was needed. That meant that, while shooting, star Burt Lancaster spoke English, as did a few other actors, while most others spoke Italian.

After winning the 1963 Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, 20th Century Fox distributed The Leopard in the United States, but first cut some 25 minutes and used only the English-language version. Some reports claim that the company also tinkered with the film's color, making it brighter and more garish.

In 1983, The Leopard was re-released in its entirety, available in the 185-minute Italian version for the first time, with another actor providing Lancaster's Italian voice.

But even in the dawn of the video era and with brand-new materials available to them, no one ever bothered to release The Leopard on video, on laserdisc, or on DVD until now. In their infinite wisdom, Criterion has opted to release both versions of the film on two discs, plus a third disc of extras and interviews.

It's not hard to guess that the Italian version is the preferred version; the American version resides on the lonely third disc and still has spots of dirt and scratches on its stock. But I like having both versions simply because this is one of Lancaster's greatest performances, and his real voice is a part of that.

Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina during the 1860s, a time when Garibaldi was making noise about ending the aristocracy and implementing a new democracy. The prince seems to understand that his days are winding down. "We were the leopards and the lions; those who take our place will be jackals and hyenas," he says in a statement that would nicely apply to our modern age.

The prince begins to make plans, which include his nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon). An energetic opportunist, Tancredi joins Garibaldi's army and fights in the streets alongside the revolutionaries. Later, he switches sides and betrays not a smidgeon of guilt or concern over Garibaldi's defeat.

The prince arranges, not unwillingly, for Tancredi's marriage to the beautiful Angelica Sadera (Claudia Cardinale), to boost the family's fortunes. Visconti underlines their relationship during a stunning sequence in which the young couple plays in the castle's unused rooms, giddily chasing each other through dust and decay.

Shot in glorious, full-color 1-to-2.35 widescreen, Visconti's film happily fit in with the epic craze of the day, coming soon after Lawrence of Arabia and Cleopatra. The director makes the most of the format, decorating nearly every frame from tip to toe with ornate spectacle, golden trinkets and luxurious tapestries.

He designed several standout set-pieces, including the swirling sequence in which Tancredi goes off to war and the prince slips him a little bag of gold, to the final ball sequence, which lasts almost fully the film's final hour.

At the center of it all, orchestrating everything, is the prince, the leopard, magnificently played by Hollywood royalty. Lancaster reportedly based the character on Visconti himself. His every move smacks of weary nobility. He was born for this part, and his performance anticipates The Godfather and other films. Even the Italian actor who dubs Lancaster's voice seems to click into place.

The Leopard marked a mid-point in Visconti's career, tackling both chilly richness and grungy realism. Visconti's first film Ossessione (1943) inspired the neo-realists Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, and his La Terra Trema (1948), set in a Sicilian fishing village, was seen as a masterpiece of pure realism. Later, Visconti began to indulge his upper-class background with Senso (1954) and the brilliant epic Rocco and His Brothers (1960), a perfect mix of indulgence and indigence. The Leopard grew naturally out of this progression. Afterward, he would creep increasingly into chilly richness with The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971).

Again, the first disc includes the 185-minute Italian cut -- supervised by director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno -- plus a commentary track by scholar Peter Cowie. Disc two comes with a 60-minute making-of documentary, which interviews all surviving cast and crew members, plus filmmaker Sydney Pollack. There are also interviews with producer Goffredo Lombardo and University of Pennsylvania professor Millicent Marcus, plus trailers, newsreels and a stills gallery. The third disc includes the American version with no extras. In addition, author and historian Michael Wood provides new liner notes.

In 2010, Criterion released a superior Blu-Ray edition with all the same extras, except on two discs rather than three.

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