The Leopard (Criterion)
This is what Blu-ray was made for.
I know that the special effect-laden sci-fi extravaganzas and action epics are what really drive home theater sales, with fans wanting to get theatrical presentation muscle into their home. But that’s all about showmanship (not that there’s anything wrong with that). What really sends me to heaven is watching a presentation of a cinema masterwork with the clarity, richness and integrity of a perfect 35mm presentation. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), quite simply one of my all time favorite films, is one of those masterworks and Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition (freshly mastered from a stunning print with unparalleled color and crispness) is as perfect a home video incarnation as anyone could hope for and better than any theatrical screening I’ve have the pleasure to experience.
I believe that Visconti’s 1963 adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel is his masterpiece. Burt Lancaster (his voice is dubbed by a deep-voiced Italian) may seem an unusual choice to play Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, an idealistic 19th century Sicilian prince (Visconti favored Laurence Olivier, a much more conventionally regal choice), but his confidence, his gravitas, and his understated cat-like grace as he walks through the world as if he owned it, creates a character of great authority and even greater melancholy. With the impoverished island nation of Sicily on the verge of revolutionary change and reform, Salina places his hope in this revolution to wipe away the corrupt ruling aristocracy (of which he is himself a member) and his upstart nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), who fights for a unified Italy with Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. “For things to remain the same, everything must change,” proclaims Tancredi as he sets off to join the revolution. Salina is publicly against the war but privately sympathetic and he sees Tancredi as the future of this country, or at least of his family, which is mired in a sinkhole of decadence and irrelevance.
Lancaster’s Salina is both above the world and within it. He takes his place as an authority figure in the aristocracy with dignity even as he mourns its inbred impotence, and nowhere more beautifully than the magnificent finale. The farsighted Salina has arranged for Tancredi’s future with a beneficial marriage to the beautiful (if raw) daughter of the gauche Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), a landowner buying his way into society and into political power. That his daughter, Angelica, is played by Claudia Cardinale as an earthy beauty with crude manners as honest and direct as they are inappropriate to police society, only cinches the deal: two of the most beautiful people in international cinema circa 1963 bring on the marriage of class and power, old blood and new money. It couldn’t be more perfect.
The society ball of the finale becomes the now-tutored Angelica’s official induction into society and (as Dave Kehr so beautifully explores in his New York Times piece) the closing bracket to the battle scene of the first act. Running 45 minutes (fully a quarter the three-hour film’s running time), it is both metaphor for and illustration of the failure of all of Salina’s hopes. The revolution has been co-opted, Tancredi’s idealism swapped for opportunism and the new order revealed as glib and shallow and greedy as the decaying old world of social graces and empty ritual. Visconti’s elegant, gliding long takes through the amazing sets tells the same story on a purely visual level, a study in a world of empty surfaces and meaningless manners.
On Blu-ray, the human detail is all the more apparent as we can make out everything from the details of dress to the faces and gestures of almost everyone in a given scene, and the physical details of his world are shown with crystal clarity, from the tiles of roofs in the town down the hill from the Prince’s palace to the designs of the wallpaper, the etchings on the goldleaf and the metalwork of the candelabras of the palace where the ball of the final act takes place. Apart from the sheer beauty of the film, this clarity draws us deeper into the frame and the dramatic detail, even if Visconti’s aloof camera remains a distant observer of the world.
Visconti’s unusual pedigree—a dedicated Communist raised (and at the time of his filmmaking still living) within the Italian aristocracy—gives his portraits of the high society (past and present) a unique sensibility. I can only guess at the documentary authenticity of his recreations of manner and ritual but the richness of detail he brings to the human interactions and social currency creates a mesmerizing verisimilitude, a world that is completely believable and consistent enough to make any aberrations startlingly apparent. Meanwhile, his politics carry an inherent criticism of the very lifestyle he so painstakingly puts on display. There is both loving nostalgia and conflicted enmity in the direction, a respect for such grace and a disgust for its decadence.
Lancaster’s Prince wanders the landscape of power and society, aloof from it all until he waltzes with Angelica, giving his approval to her ascension while displaying the easy grace and unforced command of his position. But it’s a bittersweet moment; while his family once cringed at her peasant manners, I saw in his smiles an appreciation for her earthy way, a fresh injection of candor and authenticity in a fossilized world. Now she too has been co-opted, sliding into her social role at the cost of her fiery will, while her petit bourgeois father can only converse in terms of monetary value: he tries to put a price tag on the lavish display of riches before him. The aging Prince sees his dream crumble at the coronation of the next generation of opportunists and slips away, along with his impotent idealism, into the world of shadows. You might say that the entire film is a dance to the music of time, but neither the music nor the steps change. They simply swap partners and continue dancing in their bubble of privilege.
The Blu-ray debut features the 185-minute Italian theatrical version remastered in high-definition from the original negative (not, as Kehr helpfully point out, the recent restoration undertaken by The Film Foundation) supervised by director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno. I’ve never seen the film look this beautiful.
The supplements are all ported over from Criterion’s DVD release. film scholar Peter Cowie provides commentary and a second disc features the 161-minute American release supervised by Burt Lancaster (whose own voice can finally be heard), which is not merely shorter; the script translation softens the politics and social conflicts of the film. Also includes the hour-long documentary A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard, featuring interviews with Claudia Cardinale, screenwriter Suso Ceccho D’Amico, cinematographer Guiseppe Rotunno, and Sydney Pollack (who worked with Burt Lancaster on the American dub version) among others, video interviews with producer Goffredo Lombardo and Professor Millicent Marcus of the University of Pennsylvania (on the history behind The Leopard), stills gallery, original trailers and newsreels and a booklet.
Follow up Dave Kehr’s review of The Leopard with the conversation playing out in the comments section of his blog here.
New York Confidential (VCI)
This 1955 mob drama is neither the first nor the best of the “ripped from the headlines” crime expose dramas that followed the Senate hearings into organized crime chaired by Estes Kefauver, but it is a classic mix of Hollywood docudrama and tabloid exploitation. Made in 1955 and inspired by (if not quite based on) the book by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, this precursor to the mafia movies stars Broderick Crawford as New York crime boss Charlie Lupo, a real “family man” who swaps family snapshots while plotting a hit, and Richard Conte as the loyal pro Nick Magellan, a cool, smart and savvy gunman who is brought in from Chicago for a killing and stays on as Lupo’s trusted right hand. Crawford won his Oscar for All the King’s Men but Lupo is less Willie Stark than crime boss turned big businessman, trying to keep of a front of respectability with legitimate deals. But while he wears the front of a citizen, he’s an uncomfortable fit in the halls of power (he reverts back to thug while conferencing with his bought-and-paid-for Senators) or society.
J. Edgar Hoover had denied the existence of the mob for decades until the Kefauver hearings finally brought too much attention. This film quietly but clearly establishes the chain of command in the opening scene as Lupo takes his orders in a phone call from Italy, and acknowledges the open secret of the mob (called “The Syndicate” here) through his daughter Kathy (a stunning young Anne Bancroft), who moves through society circles but treated like a pariah because everyone knows the Daddy is a gangster. “You’re still a hoodlum,” she spits at him after another boyfriend has been scared off, this time by Nick. “You’ll never be anything else.” Contempt drips from her every utterance but she can’t outrun the family name or the criminal stain and she finally turns that contempt on herself: the poor little crime princess who chokes on her self-hatred. Nick’s adoring courtship only makes it worse, especially when his desire conflicts with his loyalty to Lupo. Kathy can’t even debase herself properly.
Russell Rouse (who wrote D.O.A. with his screenwriting partner Clarence Greene and directed Wicked Woman, also from a script with his Confidential collaborator Greene) is not a dynamic director but he has something here in this tabloid crime thriller. Dialogue scenes lack any dramatic tension but he delivers the thuggery of the underworld—brutal beat-downs, cold-blooded killings, Nick smiling while he does his work—with a straightforward bluntness that suggests tabloid photography and captures the morbidity of the criminal world: part exploitation, part operatic drama. The Syndicate is more important than any individual, is Lupo’s philosophy, which you know will come back on him. No one touched by the corrupting tentacles of organized crime gets out alive, which meets the production code “crime doesn’t pay” morality while delivering its own grim, brutal portrait of the underworld. And Conte cuts a riveting figure as the loyal, smart and icily effective gunman turned lieutenant, an educated soldier whose loyalty is ultimately to the organization, not the man. Too bad the organization doesn’t return the respect.
The disc lists a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but it has been sized to fit the 1.77:1 widescreen TV format. While it’s fine, the open matte presentation leaves too much dead space headroom in numerous scenes and would play better at the correct aspect ratio. Otherwise it’s a fine print that has been decently mastered for disc. Features commentary by film noir historian Alan K. Rode, who hosts the track and provides most of the production comments, and critic/noir maven (and fellow MSN writer) Kim Morgan, who chimes in for color commentary (and an obsessive appreciation of the pickle that J. Carrol Naish chomps in an early scene; Kim, sometimes a pickle is just a pickle) plus a gallery of stills and advertising art.
Night Train to Munich (Criterion)
Any resemblance between Carol Reed’s Night Train To Munich (1940) and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes is strictly intentional and not particularly favorable to Reed. Scripted by the same screenwriting team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat and featuring leading Lady Margaret Lockwood, this thriller once again sets ordinary Brits (and in this case, a couple of Brits playing Austrian refugees) against the Nazis in the days just before Britain declares war on the Third Reich. Reed was a long ways from the confidence and mastery of The Third Man when he made this confection. He lacks Hitchcock’s deftness and light touch and even his energetic direction can’t distract from the weak script or the implausible plotting that tosses the characters back and forth across the continent so rapidly the actors have little room to breath life into their roles.
What is does offer is a mix of wit and wiles, a genuinely startling sequence in a concentration camp (the grim reality of the Nazi occupation hangs over the entire enterprise) and sprightly performance by Rex Harrison as an engagingly cocky British agent who impersonates a Nazi officer to rescue prisoners from behind enemy lines. The extensive use of miniatures may look quaint and unconvincing to modern eyes, but the craft and detail has a charm and a beauty that modern movies sacrificed in the name of realism. Pre-Casablanca Paul Henried (credited here as Paul Von Hernried) is a very effective as a concentration camp prisoner who masterminds the escape from the camp and into Britain and Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne recreate their roles from The Lady Vanishes as blasé British tourists traveling through Germany (when Britain declares war they worry about cricket and the golf clubs they left behind in Berlin: “I’ll never replace those,” sighs Radford). The disc features a video conversation between film scholars Peter Evans and Bruce Babington and a booklet with an essay by film critic Philip Kemp.