By Todd McCarthy | Todd McCarthy's Deep Focus May 16, 2010 at 8:20AM
The best film of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival thus far was a 47-year-old one shown Friday on what was one of the most electrifying evenings in recent festival history. A superbly restored version of Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard," which won the Palme d'or in 1963 and has always been one of my favorite films, debuted as part of the Cannes Classics sidebar, presented by Martin Scorsese and accompanied by the film's two surviving stars, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale.
The three-hour film was listed to start at 6:15 p.m. at the Debussy in the Palais des Festivals, and Cannes is normally a tightly run ship when it comes to maintaining its schedule. At about 6:35, festival head Thierry Fremaux took the stage to apologize for the delay, which he attributed to heavy traffic on the Croisette. It was soon evident, however, that the event was running on Italian time, and it was another 20 minutes before the mainly black-tie and evening gown crowd of dignitaries, which included jury members Benicio Del Toro, Kate Beckinsale and Alberto Barbera, director of Italy's National Museum of Cinema in Torino, began filing in to take the reserved seats down front.
Given that this new restoration of "The Leopard" was engineered and funded by The Film Foundation, along with Gucci, we all knew that Martin Scorsese would be there to introduce the evening. What most of us didn't know about, however, was the presence of Delon and Cardinale, who eventually made their way in from the back and later took the stage, to a wild standing ovation. Among the most gorgeous icons of the 1960s, both actors, neither of whom have worked much in recent times, are now in their 70s, appeared pretty spry, even frisky. Delon, who has a lined but not saggy face and enviably thick silver-gray hair, did all the talking, honoring his collaborators and saying how much he was looking forward to watching the film again nearly a half-century after it first showed at Cannes. Cardinale, dressed in black with hair to match, laughed and cavorted about the stage but never took the microphone. Scorsese admirably described the film's enduring qualities, noting that it's a film he frequently watches and thinks about; "It's with me everyday."
"The Leopard" was restored less than 10 years ago in Italy--I saw a wonderful print of it at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theater--and the excellent Criterion DVD soon followed. It was therefore unclear to me why it needed to be restored again, but what I saw justified it. For this version, the original Technirama camera negatives were scanned at 8K (8000 lines of horizontal resolution). After the scanning of some additional 35mm protection interpositives to cover material for which camera negative couldn't be found, all the files were converted to 4K. Cannes only has the capacity to screen 2K, but it looked phenomenal, with the color schemes leaning more toward pastels than bright and the decor's innumerable paintings and tapestries being vividly clear like never before. The high-density scanning guarantees that, when technology moves along in the coming years, high-grade elements for "The Leopard" will be there waiting for it.
As Delon's revolutionary officer Tancredi says in the film, "In order for everything to stay the same, everything must change." So for a film that is above all about the passing of time, the fading of one chapter of history and the beginning of another, it was especially moving to behold Delon and Cardinale in their most beautiful and vital primes onscreen while knowing that they were with us watching themselves and forced to behold their much younger selves onscreen. I'd give a lot to be able to know their most private thoughts and feelings about this experience, something few of us can imagine.
Most of all, however, it was an occasion to behold Lancaster's magnificent performance in a role for which more than a few observers at the time considered him unsuitable. It moved me to remember my one encounter with the great star back, I believe, in 1986, when I flew from Los Angeles to Mexico City to visit the sets of David Lynch's "Dune" and then, in Cuernavaca, John Huston's "Under the Volcano." In the LAX boarding lounge for the Mexicana flight, I noticed an older gentleman who looked vaguely familiar but was largely hidden behind large sunglasses and Mexican peasant attire that consisted of a sombrero, serape and sandals.
Mexicana had only one class of service at that time and I was fortunate to get a first row seat on the window. Shortly, the mystery man sat down next to me on the aisle and I stole a look that made me 90 per cent certain he was who I thought he was, a suspicion confirmed when I managed to see his passport, which read "Burton Lancaster. Birthplace: New York, New York." He kept the sunglasses on, immediately began reading a book and in every way emanated vibes that said, 'Leave me alone'. So I did, until the meal was served an hour or so after takeoff, at which point he put the book and sunglasses down.
Summoning both nerve and all the respect and politeness I could, I said, "Mr. Lancaster, I don't want to bother you, but I can't let this opportunity pass without telling you how much I admire your work in so many films, but especially in 'The Leopard.'" This seemed to open the door a crack, and when I told him I had once met Visconti at a screening of "Rocco and His Brothers" in London and had also seen his staging of Verdi's "Falstaff" in Vienna (I knew Lancaster adored Italian opera), the forbidding demeanor relaxed a bit further. I went on to express my enthusiasm for "Sweet Smell of Success," Visconti's "Conversation Piece," "Go Tell the Spartans," "Atlantic City" and "Local Hero," and our talk quickly branched out to encompass anything and everything--travel, books, politics, his children and much more. He was on his way to Mexico City to complete his role in a TV miniseries--"On Wings of Eagles," I believe--and I mentioned that the year before I had gone through Mexico City on my way to Cuba for the Havana Film Festival, which interested him greatly as he had never been to the country. I told him that several American actors, including Jack Lemmon, Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, had been there that year and that I was sure he would be eagerly welcomed as a guest, but he never did make it there.
We spoke for the entire remainder of the flight, certainly more than two hours. He was entirely formidable--intelligent, serious, intensely focused, somewhat wary, dismissive of some subjects but craving new information. He shared the trait common to many people of limited formal education but who at a certain point dedicated themselves to self-improvement and perpetual learning; he asked questions when a topic or person interested him and always wanted to know more, which entirely fit with his reputation for having a great lust for life. It also helps explain how this former acrobat could have so splendidly impersonated a 19th century Sicilian aristocrat by immersing himself in the relevant culture and history and developing, after initial friction, deep ties with his aristocratic Milanese director.
After we landed and deplaned, we said a friendly good-bye, upon which he disappeared through a side V.I.P. door while I faced what, at least at that time, was the nightmare of the baggage claim and customs area of the Mexico City airport. I managed to find my bag and was lining up for an interminable wait when I noticed the door open part-way; Lancaster stuck his head out and beckoned me with his finger. He didn't have to do that, but he he did and I'll never forget it.
I came away deeply impressed with Lancaster; he seemed to me a fantastic man, no doubt difficult and demanding to those around him, but I would imagine equally so on himself. He was in his early 70s and his once-formidable physical powers had certainly faded somewhat, so I was especially moved Friday night during the extraordinary ball sequence that occupies the final hour of "The Leopard," in which Don Fabrizio suddenly sees himself to be an old man, one whose generation must now give way to the next. The only problem with "The Leopard"--and it's a function of how the film was made--is that the Italian version of the picture has Lancaster dubbed by an Italian actor; the only way you can experience Lancaster's own vocal performance is to watch the mutilated English-language version (in which all the other actors are dubbed into English), which isn't easy to find anymore. Still, for those who love the film, the American version, which was supervised by a young Sydney Pollack, who went on to have his own collaboration with Lancaster, is worth seeing once just to hear his own delivery of some of the prince's profoundly philosophical lines.