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A Review of the Criterion Collection DVD Set
on 21 June 2016
Watching ‘The Leopard’ at my local arts cinema about fifteen years ago was my way into the films of Luchino Visconti. I was bowled over by it: I could feel the heat of the Sicilian summer; I could feel the dust of Donnafugata; and I could feel the constricted heart of Burt Lancaster at the ball.
This is a review of the Criterion Collection three-disc DVD set of one of the hundred best films ever made. The size and scope of the Criterion Collection’s package is greater than the later set issued by the BFI.
Disc one features the 185-minute film version. (The original film was 205 minutes in length but was reduced by the producer partly due to the objections of the Catholic Church.) It comes with a commentary by Peter Cowie who expands on the film-making, the historical context of the story, and the links to the novel, reading out many extracts at appropriate moments. Cowie also informs us that Visconti originally wanted either Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier to play the title role.
It is interesting to compare the natural, painterly scenes of ‘The Leopard’ with the pretentious works of other Italian directors of this era, but then Visconti was an aristocrat with nothing to prove in the 1960s. You can pause the movie at any point to witness his skill at framing and colouring, whether it is an interior or exterior shot.
I’ll come to disc two in a minute, but first disc three features the English-language version. There is a background hiss (but it is not overtly disagreeable) and the colours are not as sharp. (It is a new transfer but not a digital one.) And of course it is twenty-five minutes shorter than the Italian version – thus, for instance, when Lancaster goes to visit the prostitute there is no conversation with the priest, rather the door is merely closed; and there is no explanation given for the journey to Donnafugata; nor the priest’s monologue in the inn.
From watching the English-language version, it is clear that most actors spoke their lines in English. One benefit of the English version is that the screen is slightly wider (from 2.21:1 to 2.35:1): witness the seating of the priest on the left side when Burt Lancaster kisses Paolo Stoppa to seal the marriage bargain between Tancredi and Angelica.
Finally, then, disc two. This features a sixty-minute ‘Making of’ documentary that was made in 2004, with chapters on the novel, the screenplay, the casting, pre-production, the shooting, and the dubbing. Contributors include Claudia Cardinale, Sydney Pollack, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi di Lampedusa, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, and Piero Tosi.
Claudia Cardinale says she spoke her lines in English with Burt Lancaster, in French with Alain Delon, and in Italian with the rest. But this is contradicted if you watch the lips, and Brad Stevens (in ‘Sight & Sound’) insists that all the principle actors spoke English. Stevens therefore claims that the English-language version has a claim to authenticity. Sydney Pollack oversaw the English version and says that all the voices were redubbed for it, and apart from those of Burt Lancaster and Leslie French, the voices used were by different actors than those seen on screen. (Pollack humbly takes the blame for the film’s failure in the States.)
Other extras on disc two include a twenty-minute interview in 2003 with the producer, who talked of the possibility of a sequel. Then Professor Millicent Marcus takes fifteen minutes to talk about the history of the Risorgimento and how the history of Italy is reflected in the film. Stills, film of the Rome premiere, and trailers complete the disc. All in all, then, this is a generous package.