Warner Bros. // 1973 // 151 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 24th, 2011
The greatest adventure of escape.
"A temptation resisted is a true measure of character."
As soon as Papillon (Steve McQueen, The Cincinnati Kid) begins serving his prison sentence in the hellish Devil's Island penal colony, he begins plotting his escape. Imprisonment is an intolerable condition for Papillon; he will be free regardless of the cost. He makes friends with Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man), a mousy, intelligent man who can get you things, scrounge up some cash and perhaps even arrange an escape. Alas, Papillon's attempts to break free repeatedly conclude in failure over the years, forcing him to spend a great deal of time in the mentally and physically taxing realm of solitary confinement. Will Papillon ever find freedom, or will the system eventually break him?
Franklin J. Schaffner's Papillon is a great film that is stretched and stretched until it finally becomes simply a good film. Perhaps that's unfair; it could be argued that the film's 151-minute running time is required to give viewers a sense of just how lengthy and interminable Papillon's prison sentence was. Even so, this feels like a fairly intimate story being unsuccessfully treated as an epic. Underneath all the sweeping grandeur is a simple, affecting story of a man's burning desire for freedom and his complicated friendship with another inmate.
Papillon is first and foremost a terrific vehicle for Steve McQueen, who turns in what just might be the most impressive performance of his career. McQueen brought his trademark sense of cool masculinity to nearly every role he played, but there weren't many occasions in which he was pushed outside his comfort zone. Part of what makes Papillon so fascinating is that it permits McQueen to begin the film in familiar, quietly unflappable territory, but eventually breaks that facade into pieces and requires the actor to tackle a portrait of desperate madness. McQueen's vivid emoting adds an additional layer of power to the character's struggle: look at what these tormentors have done to this cool-as-a-cucumber thespian!
The relationship between Papillon and Dega is more complicated. It was initially hoped that McQueen and Hoffman would generate appealing onscreen chemistry that would carry the film through its less eventful passages, but chemistry generally requires mutual generosity. McQueen and Hoffman were both notoriously competitive actors (recall the stories about McQueen doing everything in his power to steal scenes from Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven), and it's plain to see that they're treating their scenes together more like a competition than a shared task. Hoffman adds innumerable attention-grabbing tics to his character, from the Midnight Cowboy-esque limp to the mild lisp to the incessant glasses-cleaning. Hoffman and McQueen aren't too persuasive when it comes to selling their supposedly endless affection for each other (a matter perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the two stopped speaking to each other after a disagreement midway through the filming process), but it's still a kick to watch two icons of the era simultaneously attempting to run circles around each other. If I had to pick a winner, I'd go with McQueen, if only because his brand of showing off seems comparatively effortless.
Schaffner has generally been regarded as one of those competent workmen who happened to be in the right place at the right time on several different occasions (Patton and Planet of the Apes chief among them). While there may be some truth to that, his direction is sensitive, intelligent and occasionally inventive (the fleeting moments of hallucinatory fantasy McQueen experiences are particularly striking). He isn't always capable of preventing the film from slipping into dull territory (I certainly wouldn't suggest morphing this material into a juicy blockbuster like The Great Escape, but it could have benefited considerably from tighter pacing), but he does a fine job of recreating the striking setting and brings a touching gracefulness to many sequences which might have been more blustery in the hands of another director.
Papillon (Blu-ray) sports a handsome 1080p/2.40:1 transfer which remains true to the original intentions of the filmmakers. The film has always looked quite soft, so don't expect that to change in this 1080p presentation. Even so, colors are quite vibrant (occasional bursts of color contrast beautifully to the generally dingy setting), flesh tones are warm and accurate, blacks are inky and detail is as solid as it can be under the circumstances. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is exceptionally quiet much of the time, but the sound design is actually quite intricate and immersive when it needs to be. Viewers will really appreciate the virtues of Jerry Goldsmith's aching score (one of my personal favorites), which hints at its ravishingly melancholic main theme in spare, quiet fashion for much of the film. When Goldsmith unleashes the full forces of the orchestra on a few occasions late in the film, the emotional impact is enormous. Perhaps Schaffner's greatest virtue as a director was the manner in which he was consistently able to draw out great musical efforts from Goldsmith (consider the famous triplets of Patton, the unmistakable atonality of Planet of the Apes, the delicate beauty of Islands in the Stream and the diabolical waltz of The Boys From Brazil). This Blu-ray has been given the swanky digibook treatment (containing the usual supply of full-color pages featuring photos, cast and crew info, essays and more), but extras are disappointingly thin: a 12-minute vintage featurette called "The Magnificent Rebel" and a trailer. Meh.
My feelings about Papillon are generally positive but undeniably mixed: sometimes I'm enamored with the fine performances, the masterful score and the atypical tenderness of its tone, while on other occasions I'm frustrated with its bloated nature and thin script. Still, the virtues have caused me to return to the film periodically, and I'm pleased that it's been granted a Blu-ray release which boasts a strong transfer and exceptional sound.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 151 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Rated PG