Interiors and exteriors in the Leopard

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

According to the highly influential critic Roger Ebert, ‘“The Leopard” was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character.’ Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Taking an iconic novel and putting it on the screen is always a dangerous step. Many great novels have made mediocre or even poor films. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby may be one of the highpoints of American literature, which seems to be a novel that defies translation onto the screen. Gatsby has had four film adaptations, with two especially big-budget, well-known movies: the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and the 2013 film with Leonardo DiCaprio. A silent film was made in 1926, but only a short trailer can be accessed. Despite the large budgets for the Redford and DiCaprio versions, the best of the three adaptations, to my mind, appears to be the low budget version in 1949, directed by Elliott Nugent, with Alan Ladd in the title role – but the internet review site rotten tomatoes gives it 41 per cent: the Redford version came in at 27 percent: and the DiCaprio version is the most popular at 67 per cent. Based on contemporary reviews, the 1926 version gained 44 per cent. [1]  None can be deemed a great film, even though the novel is an American classic.[2]

The surprising choice of Burt Lancaster for the role of the Prince seems to be perfect now. Yet, he was chosen after Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, and Nikolay Cherkasov were not available. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The standards for such a translation from a piece of literature to the screen are high, much higher than an original script. So it is a brave director who takes on a classic, as few can rival the impact of the novel. Yet some have done so. Described as one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, The Leopard tells the story of the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution. The Prince of Salina, Fabrizio, still ruled over a vast estate in Sicily in 1860. The symbol for his family is the Leopard – hence the title. When Garibaldi’s troops land, he must decide between the growing new forces of republicanism and the old regime. The director, Luchino Visconti, may have been attracted to the book because he also came from an aristocratic family, and he almost certainly felt some connection to the title character.

Claudia Cardinale spoke Italian – or more likely in a Sicilian dialect or French when she worked with Alain Delon. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

According to the highly influential critic Roger Ebert, ‘“The Leopard” was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character.’[3] Yet the casting was, in many ways, a happy accident. The surprising choice of Burt Lancaster for the role of the Prince seems to be perfect now. Yet, he was chosen after Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, and Nikolay Cherkasov were not available.[4] It was very much an international production designed to appeal to audiences across the world; hence it also stars Alain Delon from France and Claudia Cardinale, nominally from Italy – she was Italian Tunisian. Even though Lancaster comes from a Northern Ireland origin, he passes well as an Italian. It was filmed without sound. Lancaster spoke his lines in English, Cardinale spoke Italian – or more likely in a Sicilian dialect or French when she worked with Delon. Only later was the film dubbed into Italian.

The film falls in one key area, which is the interior monologues of the Leopard. It is not something that can easily translate from the interior to the exterior. In theatre, you can directly address the audience, talking the character out of time and space. In the film, this technique is far more difficult. A director might show a shot of the actor staring into space, and then run a voice-over showing the countryside that they are looking at in the distance. In The Leopard, who strives for naturalism, cannot do that. We cannot look inside a character’s head and read their thoughts, just as we cannot do it in real life.

In some scenes such as the arrival of Claudia Cardinale, the battle of Palermo, and the final ball, Visconti seems to reach a different level in film making. Images courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Yet the internal monologues of the Prince as he ruminates on death and the changing situation of the times, are the brilliant backbone of a great novel. It is where the novel takes off, and the film flounders. Occasionally, Visconti allows the Prince to state these thoughts, but he never delivers the full weight of them. This approach probably says more about the limits of cinema as an art form.

While the film flounders with the internal dialogues, the book does not convey the beauty of the palaces or the visual splendour of Sicily. It is a film of exteriors. In some scenes such as the arrival of Claudia Cardinale, the battle of Palermo, and the final ball, Visconti seems to reach a different level in film making. While some find Visconti slow, I find the detail of each scene so interesting that I want more time.

In short,  The Leopard (1963) is one of the most beautiful films ever made, and it is to Criterion’s credit that they have given it a treatment that it deserves. The Criterion disc set is the best way to watch the film outside of a cinema. It has the full 185-minute version – the first release was shortened by 25 minutes – but in either the directorial version, the film is a swirl of brilliant performances and directorial finesse. To my mind, the extended version does not add a great deal to the overall impact of the film, but it interesting to see it. The set has an outstanding commentary by film historian Peter Cowie who completes an excellent presentation of the film. The attached documentary is of little interest. Overall, a beautiful set in homage to one of the finest films ever made – certainly Visconti’s masterpiece.


[1] The Great Gatsby (1926) accessed at https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_great_gatsby; The Great Gatsby (1949) accessed at https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1102658-great_gatsby; The Great Gatsby (1972) accessed at https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1102658-great_gatsby; The Great Gatsby (2016) accessed at https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_great_gatsby_2013 on 18 September 2020.

[2]  Dr. Anna Wulick, ‘Every Great Gatsby Movie, Compared: 2013, 1974, 1949,’ 4 November 2018 accessed at https://blog.prepscholar.com/the-great-gatsby-movies on 18 September 2020.

[3] Roger Ebert, The Leopard, Chicago Sun-Times 1 October 2003, accessed at https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-leopard-196 on 18 September 2020.

[4] Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2000.

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