This is heavy material for a film of any era, and the nearly three-hour epic was not a commercial success in America. It didn't help that the English language version was poorly dubbed and unprofessionally edited, unlike the 205 minute uncut Italian edition.
The result was not as hoped for by the producers. After all, big money was paid for a top American star, Burt Lancaster, to assume the world-weary aristocratic lead, Prince Don Fabrizio Salina.
While The Leopard won the Golden Palm at Cannes, it received only scattered critical response in the States. It was nominated for Best Color Costume Design at the Oscars, while the Golden Globes ceded a nod for excitable Alain Delon as Most Promising Male Newcomer.
Director Luchino Visconti is deservedly better known for his elegant 1971 film, Death in Venice. His cerebral and somewhat plodding style makes The Leopard an occasionally tough sit. Lancaster, made up to look older than he actually was, sometimes acts as if he has already been embalmed. It seems an exercise for him to merely stand. Lengthy conversations with a priest and a huntsman about marriage, morality, and class do not pass the time agreeably.
The film brightens mostly when Lancaster's impetuous nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) makes an appearance. Tancredi, after dallying with prudish wallflower Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), instead chooses fun-loving beauty Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). Her cause is further improved by the real estate wealth of her toadying father, Don Sedara (Paoll Stoppa).
The marriage of Angelica and Tancredi is a shocker, as it breaks class ranks. However, it represents the changing status of Italy, now a constitutional monarchy rather than a loose fiefdom of gentry.
The Leopard raises two questions: How is the audience expected to feel about Prince Salina, and whether the correct judgment of him is any different. Used to a life of privilege and luxury, which he has no plans to relinquish, it's hard to feel sorry for him. His fascination with death is neither novel nor of particular interest. The Prince recognizes that he now belongs to a different age, but he refuses an important role in the new society. He may be nobility, but he connot be considered noble.
Nina Rota, best known for the theme to The Godfather, contributes the familiar score. Rota worked on more than 160 films during his career.