Making its long-awaited U.S. home video debut, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) is an epic on the grandest possible scale. The film recreates, with nostalgia, drama, and opulence, the tumultuous years of Italy’s Risorgimento—when the aristocracy lost its grip and the middle classes rose and formed a unified, democratic Italy. Burt Lancaster stars as the aging prince watching his culture and fortune wane in the face of a new generation, represented by his upstart nephew (Alain Delon) and his beautiful fiancée (Claudia Cardinale). Awarded the Palme d’Or at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, The Leopard translates Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, and the history it recounts, into a truly cinematic masterpiece. The Criterion Collection is proud to present the film in two distinct versions: Visconti’s original Italian version, and the alternate English-language version released in America in a newly restored special edition.
Previously released on DVD by Criterion they now present Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard on Blu-ray, again presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.21:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.
The transfer found on here, which looks to be based on the same high-def transfer used for the original, offers a significant improvement over the DVD edition. Doing a comparison the DVD shows far more artifacts than I had originally noticed while this new Blu-ray presents a far cleaner, much sharper image. Colours certainly pop more here, especially the orange/red shirts worn by Garibaldi’s men and blacks look fairly inky when the source allows (some scenes present faded blacks.) The image is far sharper, presenting more distinct details in faces, sets, landscapes, and in the textures of the clothing. Film grain, which isn’t at all heavy, also looks far more natural here.
The print looks to have been cleaned up a little more as some of the damage I noticed in the DVD doesn’t appear to have made its way here though a few marks still remain. I noticed a couple of sequences that present problems with colour separation (in the same places as the DVD) but they’re very few and very far between.
Past the minor issues with the print this new transfer actually makes it look like the film was made just within the last few years; it’s absolutely beautiful, and it presents a very striking improvement over the previous DVD edition.
Criterion includes a lossless PCM mono track that offers a subtle improvement over the DVD’s Dolby Digital track. I found range and volume to be better, if only slightly, but the general quality of the materials sound to be the same. Though all dialogue appears to have been looped it still sounds natural within the film, even the dubbing of Italian over English speaking Lancaster and Leslie French, and French speaking Alain Delon, sound pretty good; even the synching issues are minor. Nino Rota’s music does sound distorted and tinny in a few places but it’s easy to overlook as it does sound very pleasing through much of the film, swelling out rather nicely and never coming off harsh or edgy; the music at the ball during the finale is especially pleasing. In all it’s an excellent track serving the epic feel to the film.
Criterion has thankfully ported everything over from their landmark 3-disc DVD edition, leaving nothing out.
The first disc is devoted to the film, which probably explains why the image looks as good as it does for this 3-hour plus film (a harming factor in their Blu-ray for The Last Emperor is that they basically jammed 3 DVDs worth of material onto one Blu-ray disc, harming the image in the end,) and the only feature present on the disc is a screen-specific audio commentary by Peter Cowie. I think Cowie’s commentaries are hit-and-miss with people but I’ve generally liked them and always look forward to them. This one on the other hand is simply okay, and revisiting it on this Blu-ray hasn’t changed my opinion much. I think one of the issues is that Cowie does strain to fill the three-hours, though admirably he does leave very little in the way of dead space. He fills the track with a lot of comparisons to the source novel, even quoting from it frequently, though this does have its uses: One issue many have with their first viewing of the film is that some actions and sequences aren’t clear at first and Cowie referencing the novel does clear up a couple of things. On top of this he also talks in great detail about Visconti, Lancaster, Delon, and Cardinale, along with other actors in the film, gets into the technical details of certain sequences, specifically the final ball sequence, and also places the film in its historical context (though another supplement on this set does better in that regard.) He also expands on some of the themes presented in the film, the politics that exist, and also offers the views of the author and the director and how they show through in the novel and/or film. It’s good overall, very informative, but does feel to be padded a bit. Still, this was certainly not an easy feat and Cowie does his best and at the very least keeps it interesting.
Also available on the first disc is a Timeline feature, which allows you to navigate through the chapters on the disc and bookmarks spots. But Criterion has now added a “Resume Playback” feature, which allows the viewer to return to where they left off if they had to leave the film and turn off their player. If you stop at any point during the movie and then load up the disc later a pop-up appears asking if you want to resume the film with “Yes” or “No” as the options. Clicking “Yes” returns you to the film while “No” takes you to the main menu. This appears on discs from other studios (Warner Bros. jumps to mind) and I’m glad Criterion is including it; sometimes I would forget to bookmark if I had to turn off a Blu-ray (and as much as I love Blu-ray I do miss how most DVD players would pick up on where you left off—it’s the little things.) This is also available on their Blu-rays of Everlasting Moments and Red Desert, and I assume this will be common on all future Blu-rays. As far as I could tell it wasn’t on Close-Up or Mystery Train, their other June releases.
Continuing on with the remainder of the supplements we move over to the second dual-layer disc.
First up is the American Version of The Leopard, which runs about 24-minutes shorter at 161-minutes and is in English. This is a rather interesting inclusion, though one that’s not necessary to view. It cuts out quite a bit (one big notable scene that was excised is the card game between the Prince, his nephew, friend, and Cavaliere Chevellay) but does actually work to “better explain” some sequences, like the scene where Delon’s Tancredi pays a visit to Angelica; in the Italian version it’s not exactly clear what is going on but in the American version you hear a voice over from Lancaster that basically spells it out for you.
It also hasn’t been restored at all and is in pretty poor shape. There was some disappointment in this regard with the original DVD but Criterion has again done nothing new with it here, not even presenting it in true high-definition: It’s actually just an upscaled version of the DVD’s standard transfer, presented in 1080i/60hz (it’s the exact same transfer, even opening with the old Criterion logo.) It actually looks rather awful, though I can’t say I was surprised. And while I don’t recommend it as a necessary viewing, I’m happy Criterion still carried it over.
(The American version also has the “Resume Playback” feature but does not have a Timeline available.)
Next is the making-of documentary A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard, made in 2003 for the original DVD edition. In it we get interviews with many of those involved in the production, including director Sydney Pollack (who worked on the American version), actress Claudia Cardinale, screen writers Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Gioacchino Lanza Tomassi di Lampedusa (son of the book’s author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa,) art director Mario Garbuglia, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, and costume designer Piero Tosi. Running about 61-minutes it’s a pretty standard talking heads documentary, but no less fascinating, giving a timeline on the production and getting into detail about the various aspects of it, including sets and costumes. The writers talk about the ordeal of having to adapt the novel, and also explain the decision on cutting out the last two parts of the book (which Cowie also talks about in the commentary.) There’s also a little bit of information about the American version and how it came about, Pollack getting into detail as to why it didn’t work (Lancaster’s American accent probably being one of the many key reasons.) Criterion went around and gathered these interviews over the course of a year and it was well worth it, giving us a rather thorough and engrossing making-of.
Moving on the next supplement is a 20-minute interview with producer Goffredo Lombardo, who was the producer for The Leopard, which was made for another DVD release. In it he talks about how the production came to be, getting Visconti to meet Lancaster (this director having no interest in the actor, considering him a “cowboy”,) and Visconti’s attention to detail, which did drive up the price of the production, eventually bankrupting Lombardo’s production company, Titanus Films. He mentions Fox president Daryl Zanuck’s reactions to the dailies, which he laughs off (his reactions weren’t good we’ll say,) talks about the chances of a sequel, and even talks about the advantages of DVD (digital formats in general.) He’s proud of the film and it shows and he makes a great interview subject. Some material is repeated here but it’s still worthwhile in viewing.
The next feature is one some may want to view before watching the film (though it does contain spoilers) since the history presented in the film is fairly confusing (Criterion’s notes make sure to mention that it’s even confusing to Italians) and it does help in clearing up a few scenes in the film since most everything involving the conflict within the film happens off screen and is only mentioned by characters throughout. Entitled The History of the Risorgimento and running 14-minutes, Millicent Marcus walks us through Italy’s history including its separation and then the revolution that worked to bring it back together. She clarifies some scenes in the film and points out the time period they would have taken place in. I’ve always been happy with this one (which was available on the original DVD) because, despite being a history buff, my knowledge of Italian history is incredibly slim. Certainly required viewing for those unfamiliar with the subject matter.
Criterion then packs together a number of promotional materials, including posters from all over the world (gotta love the Polish ones,) Italian newsreel footage running over 3-minutes, presenting footage from awards ceremonies, an Italian theatrical trailer, the American trailer, and then an American teaser. Criterion also includes a fairly big photo gallery presenting production photos and some behind-the-scenes snapshots. It’s been divided into 4 sections.
Criterion then includes a short booklet that presents the same essay written by Michael Wood for the DVD. In a quick comparison between each edition they look to be the same.
And again, like the DVD, we get a rather solid and informative set of supplements. Though Cowie’s commentary is pretty good, one could probably skip and then just watch the interviews on this set instead. Also, while cool to have, the American version of the film is more of a curiosity than anything else; it works too hard in simplifying the film, which in the end takes a lot of the appeal out of it.
It took years and years to get the film on home video, Criterion’s DVD, released in 2004, being the first home video release (at least in North America) and it’s a real treat to have it so soon on Blu-ray. The DVD edition was impressive enough and is one of my favourites in my collection, but Criterion’s Blu-ray exceeds it in the transfer department: It looks absolutely wonderful, a near-perfect presentation. For the drastic upgrade in picture quality alone this release gets a high recommendation.