Sunday, March 23, 2014


After getting Lee Marvin out of his system, and his greatest popular success with Deliverance, John Boorman picked up a screenplay originally planned for Peter Sellers under Joseph Losey's direction and rewrote it for Marcello Mastroianni, who had impressed him most in Mario Monicelli's The Organizer. I can see a little of Organizer in Leo the Last, but the film looks most like the bastard child of Rear Window and A King in New York. Leo (Mastroianni) is an exiled prince or pretender to the throne of some European country, just arrived in London and ensconced in a mansion at the end of a cul-de-sac in a slum neighborhood. Leo seems to have been, and largely remains, little more than a figurehead for his hangers-on who still dream of reclaiming their country. He seems like he could not care less -- aloof to the point that he's thought ill, both physically and mentally, and increasingly alienated from his privileged milieu. With a telescope once meant for birdwatching he becomes a kind of voyeur, watching the working-class street life in his new neighborhood and paying particular attention to a family of African immigrants and their friend Roscoe (Calvin Lockhart), a kind of local Robin Hood. When Roscoe is arrested, Leo feels obliged to look after the family of Roscoe's girlfriend Salambo (Glenna Foster-Jones) and keep her from becoming a prostitute. Politicized at last, he wants to become a benefactor to the entire neighborhood, their champion against their oppressive landlords, etc., only to be informed that he is their landlord, that his agents had bought up the entire block before he arrived in England. This revelation doesn't change his resolution, and in an ironic climax the aristocrat presumably driven from his homeland by revolution becomes a revolutionary in his adopted country, turning on his own kind but ultimately destroying his estate in order to liberate it.

That's not enough for a 1970 movie, of course. Boorman is much more ambitious in narrative and stylistic terms, and won the best-director award at Cannes for his effort here. Leo the Last is a clash of styles to better illustrate its clash of cultures. The scenes with the exile community and their wealthy English friends are filmed in broadly satirical, often cartoonish fashion, exploiting Mastroianni's persona as a sometimes befuddled, sometimes fussy observer of a grotesque world. The slum scenes are more naturalistic and almost self-consciously primitive, the lens of Leo's spyglass evoking the iris effect in silent movies. Yet they're also masterworks of direction, Boorman coordinating the actions of different groups in different locations on the block as the telescope sweeps across the neighborhood, picking up action on the street and then swooping over to look through an upper-floor window, all seemingly in one take.

The problem is that the two styles don't really gel. The scenes of the exiles bestially gobbling everything in sight at a party, or bobbing about in a pool at the instruction of some self-actualization guru, don't seem to belong in the same film as the slum scenes that, though sometimes bawdy often have more of a raw edge. Boorman's satire proves to be selective. When Salambo's father dies after overeating thanks to Leo's generosity, we see a funeral service conducted by a bombastic pastor -- he wears a collar but is Pentecostal in his manner. This might have been a moment for Leo to find the pastor's shouting and wailing to be as ridiculous as the exhortations of the poolside guru, but instead Boorman wants us to take the funeral as an authentic expression of real emotions. Boorman wasn't obliged to see it differently, but my point is that a different sort of satiric imagination may have drawn parallels that Boorman fails or refuses to acknowledge. In simplest terms, the poor are the heroes here, so let's not complicate that.

Boorman is sometimes half-heartedly avant-garde. The first reel of the picture includes a running commentary by theoretical members of the movie audience trying to figure out who's who among the exiles without Boorman having to hang labels on them. These moments include some mockery of the film's own perceived pretentiousness, but Boorman gives up on the gimmick early on. It looks like he wanted to maintain some satiric distance early but finally wanted audiences to know where their sympathies should lie. Leo climaxes with a moment worthy of Cecil B. DeMille as Roscoe torches the mansion to drive out the exile reactionaries, only to have the whole building explode. Boorman replays the detonation from several angles to show off the collapse of his set as Leo and other onlookers are knocked down by the blast wave and Billie Whitelaw's skirt is blown upward to reveal her undies. The moral seems to be that we can't escape the revolution, or that privilege carries the seed of revolution with it wherever it goes, or maybe that the best intentions of the privileged can't prevent revolution from exploding out of control. But it must be all for the best, since the true end of the story is Leo's discovery of his telescope in the rubble and his final abandonment of it and his old life of voyeuristic privilege. We had our lovely explosion but no one died. Some revolution.

Still, Leo has that fascinating quality of reckless experimentation that characterizes its "death of Hollywood" period, when producers were willing to take chances bankrolling practically everything. Sometimes it's nearly as entertaining to see directors try something unusual as it is to see them succeed. It helps to have Mastroianni anchor the picture. In one of his first English-language roles, his enunciation is such that I'd be surprised if no one had ever tried to cast him as a vampire. He's at his best when his lines are brief, as when he can pack considerable range of feeling and intelligence into three repetitions of "no." His real gift for physical comedy translates well into any language. This isn't really a slapstick role but he has the timing and the facial expressiveness of the silent masters. His special gift is his ability to command our attention while observing other people's outrageousness, his slowness setting the film's pace and his expressions cueing our responses to the oddities he sees. Mastroianni's presence in Boorman's bleak Britain -- well captured in Peter Suschitzky's cinematography -- makes Leo the Last all the more an eccentric and fascinating experience.

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