Conversation Piece (Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1974)

Saw two Burt Lancaster films yesterday, Valdez is Coming and The Conversation Piece. Valdez is one of several anti-racist Westerns Lancaster did in this period. In Valdez he plays a Mexican constabulary on the borderlands trying to get a hundred dollars for the Indigenous wife of a black man wrongly shot at the beginning of the film. It’s Edwin Sherin’s first film, and he doesn’t have a feel for the camera, all the symbolism is externalised (Burt is tied to a cross, but it’s filmed as just him plonking down a forest in mid-shot). It’s a film that’s carried by the screenplay and the performances but that still works.

The other is Visconti’s great The Conversation Piece, where he plays a professor whose life of quiet contemplation is altered when he rents his upstairs apartment to a right-wing countess (Sylvana Mangano) for her gigolo (Helmut Berger). In both, Lancaster’s performance is pared down, acting with his eyes, and in which every gesture counts, such as his very moving and beautiful last one below. One can imagine some of Lancaster’s contemporaries playing Valdez (though hmmm even William Holden would be a stretch in the part) but that someone who so gorgeously embodied the joyous physicality of The Crimson Pirate could then inhabit Visconti’s Professor is truly wondrous. He’s so moving in it.


Here,  he’s clearly a repressed homosexual, who wakes up one night and finds a bisexual orgy in his library. Full male nudity, frontal, in 1974. I´m keen to find out more about the reception.



The Masters of Cinema Edition has a wonderful appreciation of Burt, the person and the performer, by all the behind the scenes people who worked on the film.

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