The Leopard

Burt Lancaster as the Prince

The movie-as-oil-painting prize goes to The Leopard, Luchino Visconti’s majestic, magnificent, magical magnum opus from 1963, a contender in all the serious forums for best looking film ever made but also a triumph as an examination of a society, a politics and a psychology in flux.

It’s an adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s only novel – a best-seller to this day – and follows it closely. There is no real plot, in other words, more a series of tableaux from the life of a mid-19th-century Sicilian prince as he and his family are buffeted by change, brought about first of all by Garibaldi’s revolutionary Red Shirts, busy unifying Italy (re-unifying, if we’re counting the Roman Empire era), soon to be followed by the arrival of the era of democracy and the end of the era of deference.

Life goes on for the Prince and his household, but he is wise enough to know it is all over and that the fat lady is about to sing. It’s this sense of the poignant slow fade – of a dynastic existence and of the man himself – that gives the film its power. Visconti, a Communist, doesn’t let his political leanings get in the way of a good story.

Shot in 70mm on Technicolor’s massive widescreen Technirama cameras, this is a big film in every respect. That starts with Burt Lancaster, somewhat improbably cast as the Prince, considering this is an Italian production. But his producers told Visconti that he needed a box-office name to bankroll the movie, and – first choice Laurence Olivier not being available – he reluctantly accepted Lancaster, who turned out to be inspired casting, as Visconti himself came to realise.

Just the right age, at 50, with a natural gravitas and a late-career interest in more psychologically driven roles, Lancaster’s Prince Don Fabrizio Salina is the embodiment of noble entitlement as the paterfamilias more aware than anyone around him that this the game is up for the nobility in Italy. From now on it will be a case of heads kept down, wealth enjoyed on the quiet, rather than the massively extravagant lifestyle and public adoration and respect the Salinas dynasty currently enjoy.

The film essentially follows the Prince, family and entourage out of wartorn Palermo and up into the mountains to the summer palazzo, where a series of showstopping, remarkably photographed events – a picnic, a procession through the town, a visit to church, a plebiscite on unification, a vast dinner, a visit by a representative of the new government hoping to co-opt the Prince, and finally a lavish ball which takes up most of the film’s final hour – are designed to reinforce the sense of just how much this family has, in terms of wealth and social clout.

For plot junkies, and acting as an eye-catching throughline, is the story of Tancredi, the dashing nephew of the Prince, a handsome chip off the old block and advocate for change who falls badly for Angelica, the daughter of local new-money rapscallion Don Calogero Salada (excellent Paolo Stoppa), the film’s comedic fallguy.

Tancredi is played by Alain Delon, contender for the title of world’s most handsome man at the time. Angelica is played by Claudia Cardinale, her waist eye-catchingly cinched to bruising point. Visconti, in case we don’t quite get what a showstopper she is, gives Angelica one of those spectacular filmic entrances during which all the men present fall silent and re-adjust their equipment (swords, scabbards and whatever else is hanging below), while the women look on forlonly, realising the lights have just all swung in the other direction.

Angelica and Tancredi
Angelica and Tancredi get cosy

Much is made of Angelica and Tancredi’s natural beauty, this being one of the “proofs” of the natural superiority of aristocracy – “We were the leopards, the lions. Those who take our place will be jackals and sheep,” the Prince says at one point, aware of where democracy is leading his class.

Beauty, at some level, is what the film is about. The more of it we see, the more keenly felt the loss. This gives full licence to Visconti’s obsessive eye for detail – hard to believe he’d started out as an austere neoralist – and to Giuseppe Rotunno’s almost absurdly luxuriant cinematography, composed with a painter’s eye.

It is film-making on the vastest of canvases, and yet Lancaster gives us enough peeps into the Prince’s soul, with tiny reaction shots mostly, to make this also a touching personal portrait of one man’s decline.

The Prince doesn’t die, as he did in the original book, but he is ageing, as is his world. In a brilliant late scene there’s a small duel between him and Tancredi – all done with the eyes – over Angelica, who might at this point stand for Italy. The older man and the younger, the aristocrat and the opportunist. We know how that’s going to end.

The full-length (186 minutes) Criterion version is the one to watch. Rotunno himself oversaw the 1980s restoration of the original elements, and Criterion’s transfer to digital catches the almost mad theatricality of his Technicolor lensing. The sound is fine if a touch tinny, which leaves Nino Rotta’s sumptuous score shortchanged slightly. Oh well.

The Leopard – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Le Samouraï

Alain Delon

Jean-Pierre Melville’s stylish 1967 hitman flick Le Samouraï has danced down the decades, leaving its mark on everything from William Friedkin’s The French Connection, to Walter Hill’s The Driver (and, by extension, Nicolas Winding Refn’s homage, Drive), Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, Anton Corbijn’s The American and the Coens’ No Country for Old Men. Even John Wick can trace its ancestry back to Le Samouraï, Keanu Reeves being a 21st century update on the lone wolf operator going into battle against forces known and unknown.

The opening shot alone makes Le Samouraï noteworthy. A darkened room, a man lying on a bed. The camera does one of those perspective-altering Vertigo zooms, gets about halfway into it before reversing out, then in-out again, very quickly this time, the whole effect designed to elicit a “what just happened?” response, which it does.

The plot is unsettling too. A hitman called Jef Costello (Alain Delon) walks into a busy rinky-dink nightclub, enters the owner’s office and shoots him dead. Unlike everyone else, who’s dressed in nightclub-appropriate clothes, Jef is wearing a hat and trenchcoat. He sticks out like a fire on an icefield. Nor has he tried anything fancy. He came in through the front door, did what he came to do, and then left, giving a good half dozen of the staff and guests a chance to see what he looked like, in particular the club pianist (Cathy Rosier) who gets a full close-up of him in a corridor.

Jef doesn’t seem overly bothered about being hauled in by the police either, and at the copshop, what do you know, no one can quite get a proper ID on the killer, until one witness hits the bullseye so square on that… and even here there’s a wriggle and Jef is free.

Cathy Rosier as the pianist
Cathy Rosier as the pianist

Melville is playing with us. He understands what we’re expecting and then teasingly gives us some of what we want, along with something quite unexpected. Jef also gets something he wasn’t banking on – the pianist flaty will not identify him, even though her eyes confirm she knows damn well it’s him, which propels Jef into as much of a funk as an ice-cold, dead-eyed existential hitman can muster. What if the hunter has somehow, in among all this kerfuffle, in his too-cool-for-schoolness, become the hunted?

This was Melville’s first colour film and he plays with his new toys in a way that’s also unexpected, sticking as close to a monochrome palette as he can – some outdoor scenes necessarily involve Parisian street colour. But when Delon is on the screen and the action is taking place in a studio, almost everything is shades of white/grey/black. The pianist gets her own separate colour palette, too, her brown skin reflected in the monochrome cream/beige/coffee of her surrounding.

This hitman genre was pretty new ground in 1967 and so what’s even more remarkable about this film, in retrospect, is how pared back it is, as if Melville knew he was designing a template as well as a standalone art work. There’s scarcely any dialogue – Delon speaks barely a word. Movement is kept to a minimum too. In scenes with a number of people it’s rare that anyone is moving except for the protagonist (often in the shape of François Périer, as the cop on Jef’s tail). Similarly, master photographer Henri Deaë uses pools of light to light characters selectively. If you’re not involved in moving the action on, chances are you’re in the shadows.

The whole effect is super stylish, dreamlike almost. But Melville reserves one surprise for the end, when Jef hits a bump in the road. He’s dressed in black and wearing white gloves, like an update on Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Those silences, the aversion to daylight, those long reposes in darkened rooms, Jef’s hold over women (notably Nathalie Delon, Alain’s wife, as Jef’s booty call and alibi). Is this not a hitman flick at all but a vampire movie?

There are a couple of decent versions of this film out there. The 2K Pathe restoration isn’t bad, and is sharper in places than Criterion’s version, but Criterion wins overall – there’s just more shadow detail and it really makes a difference in Le Samouraï to be able to see some way into the murk. So that’s what I’m linking to below.

Le Samouraï – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Le Cercle Rouge

Vogel and Corey face off

Le Cercle Rouge, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1970 gangster-heist movie, starts with a quote from the Buddha about all men eventually finding themselves inside the red circle. Regardless of what they think they’re up to, or how self-determined their actions are, human beings cannot outwit fate.

The quote is entirely bogus, having been written by Melville himself, who picks up and drops the idea of fate/luck/chance throughout his movie, relying on it to operate when he needs a fanciful meeting of two key characters to occur, for example, but keeping it out of the picture for the film’s centrepiece, a long, silent heist sequence.

The film is a self-assured and elegant exercise in style and technique, a homage to 1940s film noir – guys in trenchcoats, wearing hats, smoking, not saying much, driving American cars and frequenting the sort of clubs where young women sell cigarettes table to table – in much the same way that Chinatown also apes 1940s noir (which Robert Towne was sitting down to write when this first opened).

The plot: career criminal Corey (Alain Delon) gets out of prison eager to pull off a robbery, and accidentally winds up with Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè), a convict on the run, in the boot of his car. Together they recruit Jansen, an alcoholic technical genius (Yves Montand), to help them pull of a massive jewel heist. Meanwhile, a doughty cop – also in trenchcoat and hat – is doggedly pursuing the lone fugitive Vogel, little realising the jackpot this is going to yield.

The four leads are well cast. Delon is the ideal Melville actor – impassive, handsome, thoughtful-looking. Volontè sits well in the rough-diamond fugitive role initially destined for Jean-Paul Belmondo, a Melville regular. Montand actually does have the look of a man who’s just recently dried out, and André Bourvil is excellent as the fastidious and philosophical cop who embraces whatever leads chance might throw his way.

Delon and Montand in a night club
Corey meets Jansen

En route Melville examines codes of honour among men, as he tended to do. These loners (and the cop is one too) represent a peak of masculine agency. They act alone, only occasionally throwing their lot in with fellow lone wolves for the purposes of the job at hand. A gruff mutual respect develops. Friendship would be stretching it.

The long, beautifully restored version I watched, from Criterion, reinstates much of the footage cut in so many earlier versions. It now runs around 140 minutes, about 40 minutes longer than it used to, and gives us a lot more texture. At one point Corey guns his black Plymouth off the road, past an advertisement for Esso heating oil, and walks into a roadside eatery, all melamine, faux stone and chintzy muzak. Melville has an eye.

In a way Melville kept making the same film again and again – the guys, the coats, the cars, the love affair with America – and if you’re after a great example of late era Melville (he’d only make one more film before dying aged 55), Le Cercle Rouge is the writer/director in full flow. Go for 1956’s Bob le Flambeur if you’re after earlier, monochrome Melville (coats, hats, cars all also in evidence).

The 27-minute-long silent heist sequence towards the end is a clear echo of Jules Dassin’s 1955 classic heist movie Rififi, though Melville claims to have had the idea for a wordless heist before the American Dassin arrived in France in 1953. Either way it’s a marvel of how these things should be done, Melville a master of film geography – spatially, we know where everyone and everything is at all times – and it’s as good as the many, many reworkings of the Mission Impossible franchise or Ocean’s 11 – meticulous planning, lots of tech, tick-tock precision, men moving as if on castors, and communicating only with a nod.

Bechdel Test fans, look away, this is a film about men, and women feature only as waitresses, girlfriends or whores. There’s not even a femme fatale in sight.

Le Cercle Rouge – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021