Leo (Marcello Mastroianni) is the last in a line of European royalty and has arrived at his father's London mansion to recuperate. However, the area the mansion is situated in has become run down, mostly inhabited by poor black residents, and as Leo indulges in his hobby of birdwatching, pigeons in this case, he begins watching the residents in his cul-de-sac instead. All the while he is engaged to be married to the opportunistic Margaret (Billie Whitelaw) and in the thrall of his staff, specifically Laszlo (Vladek Sheybal), who is planning a revolution in Leo's home country. However, Leo's new interest in the people he sees through his telescope bring him a new outlook on life and will put him in conflict with his staff...
After the American-made Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific, director John Boorman was seen as an exciting new talent to watch, but typically as a man who goes his own way regardless of how commercial his projects may or may not be, his British follow-up Leo the Last was a complete failure, and watching it it's not difficult to see why. A chaotic examination of class, it starts out like some kind of arthouse Rear Window, with Mastroianni (who is quite charming under the circumstances) watching the world go by from his bedroom, but for a man who has always been told what to do and has never thought much about the world beyond his limited experience, he's about to get a rude awakening.
He doesn't exactly see the whole panoply of human life, and at first he doesn't see much difference between those he does see and his pigeons flying past. But characters do emerge after a while: the pimp, the prostitute, the pawnbroker, the black and the white, the old and the young. Leo is quite taken with Roscoe (Calvin Lockhart) who at one stage kidnaps one of the pigeons from the rooftop, prompting Leo to leave his house and follow Roscoe and girlfriend Salambo (Glenna Forster-Jones) to the local grocery store to witness their successful attempt to steal a frozen turkey to eat by releasing the pigeon in the shop.
Leo's problem is that he feels closest to those he spies on and distant from those he is living his life with, so he goes through the motions of decadent parties and exercise regimes (which we see thanks to a bizarre swimming pool full of naked people working out under the instruction of Leo's doctor) without feeling much but unhappiness and dislocation. For some reason Boorman sees fit to "explain" his themes of alienation with voiceovers and the sadly unimpressive music of Fred Myrow and Ram John Holder (who also appears as a preacher), only serving to make things even more obscure, and the hazy, dreamlike plotting doesn't help much either.
Eventually Leo puts away his telescope and starts to interact with the residents, generously giving Salambo's family a shopping trolley full of food as their unseen benefactor, but is horrified when Salambo's elderly father dies of overeating. That's not all that horrifies him as she is raped by the brutish pawnbroker (Kenneth J. Warren) on the day of the funeral, Leo watching impotently from his window and weakly calling for assistance. Then the story takes a turn towards class war as Leo's rich, white benefactors are pitted against the poor folk when he sides with the denizens of the cul-de-sac. Always threatening to be condescending, it's difficult to understand what Boorman and co-scripter Bill Stair are getting at, but the message that you may not be able to change the world but can still change yourself might be at the heart of it.
British director whose work can be insufferably pretentious or completely inspired, sometimes in the space of a single film. He began his career with the BBC, before directing Dave Clark Five vehicle Catch Us If You Can. Hollywood beckoned and his Lee Marvin movies Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific won him admirers.