BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE LEOPARD (IL GATTOPARDO)

By • Jul 2nd, 2010 •

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Make it in 3D and they will come.

In 2010 the film industry has managed to whittle down the definition of ‘three dimension’ to a single word, ‘technology.’ Forty-eight years ago I stood on the set of THE LEOPARD and watched Luchino Visconti bring to life his seminal motion picture about the dying world of the aristocracy, revolution against the old order, and the rise and new-gained riches of the merchant and middle class. This was film-making in the truest sense of ‘three dimension’ – in story, plot, character and vision, drawn with meticulously detailed direction.

The Criterion Collection has just released a double disc BluRay of THE LEOPARD containing the original Italian Version and the subsequent American Version. After watching the re-mastered Italian version of the film I found Visconti’s ability to give depth, breadth and width to the images on the screen through lighting, placement of actors and angle of view, more powerful and true than any technically manipulated image requiring polarized glasses. I found this especially true of scenes like the church interior, showing the entire depth of the church, its back doors open as horses and carriages ride by, or the night of the ball, with foreground and background rooms opened as people walk from room to room. Combine this with an intricate, epic story and complex characters and you have a motion picture in true ‘three dimension.’

Luchino Visconti on the set of THE LEOPARD. Rome, 1962. Photo by Ralph M. Toporoff.

It was a particularly hot summer in Rome in 1962. I was a free-lance reportage photographer based in Paris, on my way to interview the head of the Mafia in Sicily, when I met my liaison in Rome who told me there would be a two-week delay. Fortunately he pulled some strings and I ended up getting permission to photograph a villa located outside of Rome, one of the three being used as a location for the production of THE LEOPARD.

Silence on the set of THE LEOPARD just before Visconti called action. Rome, 1962. Photo by Ralph M. Toporoff.

They were all there, Visconti, Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon. I was able to photograph the scene of Don Calogero Sedara presenting his daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) to the Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) for the first time. I arrived at the villa and found the set dark except for a few work lights. The exceptionally hot summer had the lighting crew turning on the shooting lights only during actual filming because the combination of summer heat and set lights would melt the wax candles in the chandeliers and holders. At Visconti’s insistence for authenticity, every item on the set had to be real, including the wax candles. So shooting was stopped until all the drooping candles on set were replaced.

Burt Lancaster on the set of THE LEOPARD. Rome, 1962. Photo by Ralph M. Toporoff.

I watched Visconti, dressed in a jacket and long silk scarf, walk the set alone in the semi darkness of the work lights, checking every item in the scene. The actors arrived from make-up and wardrobe; the lights went on, and after few words to his cast, shooting began. To my total surprise the entire cast spoke their lines in their native languages. Lancaster would speak in English to Claudia, who would reply in Italian, and Delon would speak in French. I was amazed. To their credit the actors made the dialogue between them look completely natural. What I couldn’t figure out is how this was going to work from an audio standpoint. On to my second surprise. The Italians did not record on-set sound in those days. All the Italian actors would have to go and dub their own dialogue, and voice-over actors were hired to replace dialogue of non-Italian cast members, after the film was cut. This is every cinematographers dream; no soundman and no boom shadow from the microphones. Just light the set and shoot!

I watched as Visconti directed Claudia’s walk through the doorway for the first time to meet the Prince (Lancaster). Visconti made Claudia do so many takes I lost count, and then suddenly it was right. Claudia never questioned or complained about Visconti’s numerous takes. She dutifully preformed what was asked of her, as did all the cast and crew on a Visconti motion picture. I could not see the difference between takes, but obviously Visconti could, and after seeing the scene on theBluRay I realized how right he was.

Claudia Cardinale at lunch on the set of THE LEOPARD. Rome, 1962. Photo by Ralph M. Toporoff.

I was supposed to photograph Burt Lancaster for an interview in his trailer outside the villa, but when I arrived he was deep in thought and, without a word, and keeping in the character of The Prince, just waved me off and shut the trailer door. I had waited four hours for this interview and was annoyed by the brush-off, but after the scene had been shot and finished he was totally different. Relaxed and now out of character, he explained his excitement about the film and the actor’s process of performing an emotionally filled scene in silence.

Claudia Cardinale was next on the interview list on her lunch break while an Italian-speaking interviewer questioned her. Just before the interview started he was called away for reasons I never did discover, and there I was with Claudia, alone at lunch for an hour. She was beautiful and charming and I was twenty-one and discovered at that very moment I had the best job in the entire world.

Visconti walks the set of THE LEOPARD. Rome, 1962. Photo by Ralph M. Toporoff.

THE LEOPARD could perhaps be called Europe’s HEAVEN’S GATE, and Visconti, Europe’s Erich von Stroheim. The film shot for six months, and Visconti’s meticulous insistence on period detail created such an overage in expense that it bankrupted Titanus Films, the Italian production company that produced the movie. 20th Century Fox had a financial stake in the film as well, and when it was released here, it was cut not only by 24 minutes, but by part of the horizontal image as well, as the studio converted the aspect ratio to their in-house pride of presentation – CinemaScope. That version is also available on the BluRay release, with Lancaster speaking his own part, voice-directed by one of his favorite directors, Sydney Pollack, who recalls the experience for us.

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6 Responses »

  1. BRAVO! Mr.Toporoff for this enlightening memoir on one of my favorite Visconti films. I have the Criterion dvd release of a few years ago, and saw the revival at The Film Forum in NYC. All I kept thinking about was how much of an influence this film and Visconti’s oeuvre on Francis Ford Coppola when he was filming THE GODFATHER.

  2. I loved seeing your remarkable onset photo’s have they been printed before and do you have more? I think that now while we have definative representations on DVD of this LUDWIG and DEATH IN VENICE ….the time is ripe for a reappraisal of Visconti as the great director and artist Europe has always known him to be…he was a giant of the Cinema….your article has made me want to watch all his films again….

  3. Thanks you for your positive response to my review and photographs. I’ve had three gallery shows of all the Leopard Photos that can be seen under the Exhibits section of on my website http://www.rtoporoff.com or go directly to the cinema photo page by going to : http://www.rtoporoff.com/page4.html .

  4. I thought some scenes were shot in Padua in Hotel Toscanelli but I didn’t find any news about it great Photos

  5. Can anyone tell me which villas were used for filming in Il Gattopardo?

  6. Thank you so much for this. I have always thought there should be a book on the making of this film. Does anyone know where the archives for the material would be?

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