Darkness and Cold
June 17, 2020
On The Leopard, The Train, and The Swimmer
The movie was restored (though with its runtime still abbreviated, this time at about three hours), and the dubbing was fixed. From then on, the movie has pretty unanimously been heralded as a masterwork, which I think it is. It’s a gorgeously shot, powerfully melancholy epic — it's ravishingly painterly. The Leopard is more intimate than other movies in its same temporally and stylistically decadent camp, from 1939’s Gone with the Wind to Cecil B. DeMille’s big-scale sagas of the ‘50s.
The Leopard is a movie about transition. It’s set in Sicily, in 1860; the days of the Salinan nobility of which Lancaster’s prince, Don Fabrizio Corbera, is part are numbered. (A year later, Italy would be unified under a single kingdom — a change that would spell out doom for traditions like Corbera’s.) As the film opens, it’s made clear that insurgents under the revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi are now in Corbera’s area. A dead soldier is found in his golden garden, interrupting a family prayer. Corbera is 45 — practically ancient in 1860. The film not only charts the increasingly inescapable reality that old customs will soon be displaced but also Corbera’s attempts to maintain power for as long as possible. Corbera, though, is a realist. He knows that doing as much is ultimately in vain. The majority of traditions someday become outmoded, and you cannot easily curb the inevitable.
He projects the future of the family’s noble status onto his handsome, impetuous nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), who, as the action starts, is among Garibaldi’s soldiers. (More an opportunist than a politically passionate young man, Tancredi eventually switches sides when Garibaldi’s efforts start to weaken.) Much of the movie circles around Corbera’s attempts to pair Tancredi off with the beautiful Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the daughter of the mayor of a nearby town (Paolo Stoppa) who is newly rich thanks to some flukily smart land investments. (The mayor’s characterized as an injudiciously confident, purely lucky
buffoon; he and Angelica, status aside, are looked down on by the nouveau riche.) Corbera doesn’t respect the mayor but knows that his family’s social standing will be better retained if it has a newer, longer-lasting connection. Dread is especially prominent in the movie when, while Corbera and his clan are attending church one afternoon, dust blows in through the open doors. Their faces and clothing are powdered; they look like fresh corpses, statues kept hidden in a museum basement. They’re metamorphosing into relics.
It’s obvious that Corbera himself is attracted to Angelica, but he doesn’t try anything. You can tell that when he’s with her, he’s thinking about a life he might have had, especially in a touching scene toward the end of the film where they dance together at a gathering. Corbera’s wife mostly languishes in bed (it seems as though she’s an agoraphobe) and is prone to fussy-baby hysterics. Was there ever a time where they were happy? What the prince wouldn’t give to be Tancredi’s age again. Corbera seems relatively youthful to the viewer; Lancaster has the ageless, improbable machismo of a Mattel action figure.
But when we get to the end of a climactic (it closes out the film) 40-minute-long, now-legendary sequence set at a ball, he seems to have aged 20 years. The glittery event is an aging device that spins like a carousel and moves around on wheels. Corbera hates being there in the first place — he’s disillusioned with this milieu, so time as such seems to go much slower throughout the proceeding. Visconti makes sure we notice that after all the older people (i.e., Corbera’s generation) are too tired to keep dancing, the youngsters keep moving. They’re like wind-up toys with a defect that makes them incapable of stopping. At one point, Corbera walks into a room and finds a fleet of spoiled adult daughters in frilly gowns jumping on beds like toddlers disobeying their parents in a hotel room. It’s evident throughout The Leopard that the prince prizes his nobility as much as he’s wary of its actual necessity. The latter sensation is made especially prominent here just by the way his eyes react — maybe it is a little trivial.
It’s unavoidable that viewers not that well-versed in or intrigued by Italy’s history not always be entirely clear on the cruxes of the rampant backroom scheming, and what the planned outcomes of certain dealings will really mean in the long run. But it doesn’t seem to me that Visconti is counting on the historical nuances to draw in viewers, even if they sometimes come with the lift of a soap opera. We’re meant to most of all, I think, empathize with the prince as his world crumbles — something made worse since he doesn’t expect that he’s going to live much longer. That he’s so pragmatic about his fate while also being so earnestly dedicated to old ways makes him more sympathetic. You can tell he overthinks; you can tell by the prince’s demeanor that there are few waking moments in which he’s not being eaten up inside. We pity him more because he is so aware.
The movie doesn’t romanticize the exploitative practices
necessary for an aristocracy to survive in the process of developing the narrative, though. The Marxist Visconti, who, unusual for a filmmaker, came from a background similar to his hero’s, establishes that you can commiserate with a character in a lot of respects while still being ultimately critical of ugly realities in which they might be complicit. The Leopard is an ambitious masterwork. It could have had an unruliness to it, being so ideologically tangled, historically heady, and generally long. But it lands, because it’s been made with so much conviction, vision.
physique, plays him. The story is based on a novel published in 1958 by Sicilian aristocrat Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who died before he could see its release.
The Leopard is a movie that, while fundamentally telling the story of a prince, has a grandeur to it that makes the descriptor feel like an underselling. It was viewed for a long time as a profligate waste on the part of its director, Luchino Visconti. When it was released in 1963, its distributor, 20th Century Fox, cut its runtime down by nearly an hour and badly dubbed the Italian-language movie in English, stoking further dismay over the already-controversial decision to cast Lancaster as a non-American. It unsurprisingly was discouragingly reviewed, and it wasn’t commercially successful. Then around 1980, its reputation was salvaged.
he Leopard (1963) is about a Sicilian prince. A 50-year-old Burt Lancaster, still virile-looking with his golden-hued skin and famously Herculean
Burt Lancaster in 1963's The Leopard.
n John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964), Burt Lancaster has to stop a train. Not in the sense that he has to merely pull an emergency brake — he has to physically. The film is set in France, in August, 1944,
right before the liberation of Paris. Nazis led by the draconian Colonel Franz von Waldheim (a wonderfully severe Paul Scofield) have stolen a load of priceless art from the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume. It’s a collection of works by Degas, Van Gogh, Matisse, and others — an attack on the greats. They plan to get it back to Germany before the liberation can prevent the trip. The scheme is mostly born out of von Waldheim’s yearning for one last exhalation of power before it’s taken away.
There are some attempts on the part of train personnel to delay the vehicle carrying the paintings from leaving the area, but all prove hopeless. Things start to get somewhere serious when Lancaster’s Labiche, a practical Société nationale des chemins de fer français (SNCF) inspector and covert leader of a French resistance cell, hesitantly steps in. (He’s been trying to stay out of it — he fears bids to
interrupt will cause unnecessary problems.) When he’s first told about what the Nazis are trying to do by the museum’s curator, the impressively calm Miss Villard (Suzanne Flon), he declares that he’s not going to risk the lives of those in his cell for a few paintings. But then a mentor of his — sweetly curmudgeonly engineer Papa Boule, played by Michel Simon — is killed trying to thwart the Nazis’ plan. So he reconsiders.
The Train is about the multiple attempts to literally stop the paintings from getting into Germany. Train explosions and crashes are so death-defyingly big and scary (production was assisted by the French rail authority since nothing like this could be tenably simulated circa 1964) that the movie in moments feels out of time, place. It has more in common with something as freakishly audacious as George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) than the comparatively tamer action movies to follow in its wake. The Train is so consistently exciting that it’s as though shockwaves are running through it. It has a fitting lead in the inimitable, half-century-old Lancaster, who eagerly jumps and falls and fights (usually clad in a workmanlike cardigan and black trousers) almost balletically. It’s a great performance — formidably physical and stretched to its emotional and psychic limits. Labiche’s desperation is like a cologne. The Train captures exactly what makes Lancaster so exhilarating to watch just generally: here’s this indomitably athletic man who can convince us that he’s equal parts vulnerable — that the physicality, in a way, is an extension of a surplus of feeling.
Frankenheimer, who was brought in at the last minute after the movie’s previous director, Arthur Penn, was fired, knows how to cultivate urgency. This is one of his most hammering, explosive movies. But he doesn’t lose sight of the terrifying internal damage incurred by the mania as drawn in the screenplay, penned by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis, and Walter Bernstein. The Train isn’t really what we think of when we think of a war movie, but it gets right the feeling of dread that ideally should be in all works in the genre yet isn’t always. You feel the human toll. That these men are fighting, essentially, for paintings not only calls into question the value of art holistically but if anything, really, has enough value to call for systematic human sacrifice.
The film’s last set of images is chilling. The camera switches back and forth between shots of exposed paintings and dead bodies. No music plays, which sticks out, since the stentorian, percussive score by Maurice Jarre is so often there. It prevents this excruciatingly tense movie from getting any kind of pure catharsis. Because in war, is there such a thing as one?
he Swimmer (1968) begins as an adventure and ends a tragedy. It stars Lancaster — who for the entirety of the movie only wears a small and bodycon pair of navy-blue swim trunks — as Ned Merrill, a middle-
aged man living in a prosperous Connecticut community. The film opens with him crashing the pool party of the Westerhazys, old friends — the kind you can tell have known Merrill so long that pretenses at this point resemble a chore. Niceties and cocktails are offered.
Before we get to know Merrill or his friends very well, the former glances again at the pool and then shares a silly idea that’s just flashed in front of him. What if he were to "swim home"? Meaning, do a lap through every neighbor’s pool from the Westerhazyses to his house, which presumably is the biggest and nicest of everyone’s? Apparently all the residents of this tony neighborhood community have one. Makes sense: It’s made up of properties so big and luxe that one might walk onto one and feel like they’re at a secluded country estate. It’s only Merrill who doesn’t have a pool.
The friends confirm to the skeptical viewer, mostly through furtive side glances, that this impulsive project is unquestionably harebrained. What’s concerning is that these subtle reservations are not coming from people cheerily rolling their eyes, akin to if they were sighing “oh, Ned” while remaining charmed by him. They suggest that Merrill has done something unrelatedly bad and everyone knows it — and that he should know it and act like he knows it. Is this watery misadventure supposed to hint at a larger
delusion? A delusion in response to what will remain unknown to us until the final stretch of the movie, by which time The Swimmer has started to feel stifling — like a nightmare in which you find yourself trapped in a box filling up with ice water. “I’m a very special human being — noble and splendid,” Merrill explains to a woman (played by a terrific Joan Rivers) toward the end of the movie. Then the woman’s husband takes her aside and whispers in her ear, presumably to tell her the truth about Merrill.
The movie is based on a 12-page story by John Cheever that was published in The New Yorker in 1964. The adaptation has been done by husband-and-wife filmmaking team Frank and Eleanor Perry (he directed, she wrote) with some uncredited directorial work from Sydney Pollack. (Pollack would make his film debut a year later with the similarly nightmarish and cycloidal They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?).
The film is episodic. It's mostly a series of progressively uneasy confrontations at pools decorating sensuously palatial estates. Some people love Frank so much that when they’re saying hi to him, it’s like their whole face becomes a smiling mouth. He greets a few women by whacking their asses or sneaking up behind them and squeezing their hips, and they react like it’s some sort of great compliment. A little into the first act of the movie, Frank persuades dewy-eyed Julie (Janet Landgard), who used to babysit for him and is now a 20-something-year-old secretary, to join him on his “journey,” still in its “fun” phases. But as his expedition progresses, unwitting hosts become more and more hostile. (He loses Julie somewhere along the way, too.) They know what he’s done, just like the Westerhazys, but aren’t going to put up a false front.
We can deduce that even if it isn’t necessarily the most on point description these days, Merrill has, for years, been at the “top” of things. He’s always been the most handsome, the most well-liked, the most professionally successful. Since he lives in this neighborhood, and since we hear whispers of a pretty wife and a couple of pretty daughters, he must also be fulfilled domestically. It’s almost too good to be true that he also still looks like this. His bad Caesar-style haircut (his bangs are diagonal) doesn’t undermine the fact that his locks haven’t yet gone grey and that his hairline hasn’t begun to recede like the other men in his circle. His body remains so muscly — together his shoulders and torso make what looks like a bubble-letter T — that he could be transported into a fantasy movie where he has to battle a devilish beast with a sword and he wouldn’t be out of place. He must have it all; the only downer, it at first seems, is that his skin has lost some of its tautness.
The Swimmer can be dreamy. Interludes between pool-stops are photographed and soundtracked as if we were in the inside of a kaleidoscope. Before we’ve realized what exactly the movie is trying to do, this mistiness can grate. When people speak during the first couple of acts, it’s wooden in a tiresome, seemingly pretense-ridden way — like there is a symbol for which we’re supposed to be digging somewhere but have just a cereal-box toy shovel to work with. Whenever surrealism interrupts the sunny, cleanly suburban visuals, it seems a labored-over choice — as if the makers of the film really wanted to drive in that all is to be consumed like a Dalí painting: that even the more "normal" things to be looked at are abstractions.
This remains true throughout the movie. But when we finally understand the allegory being baked — that this particularly strange and increasingly cruel day in Merrill’s life is supposed to represent his life on the whole, and that “today” he’s riding on the fumes of aggressive self-delusion — the idea of it becomes so seductive that we’re quick to forgive what had beforehand felt like arthouse stuffiness. It clicks. To be sure, The Swimmer is something of a stuffy arthouse movie, American style. But the Perrys get so right the crescendoing claustrophobia of the story. And Lancaster (giving one of his best performances) so deftly finds the middle ground between seemingly at-odds heroic-looking burliness and exposed-tissue nakedness. The film delivers cerebral and visceral blows in equal measure.
The Leopard: A
The Train: A+
The Swimmer: A