Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, July 7, 2016


Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen
PAPILLON (1973). Director: Franklin J. Schaffner.

Henri Charriere (Steve McQueen), a safecracker known as Papillon (Butterfly) due to a tattoo on his chest, is convicted of murdering a pimp (a crime he insists he did not commit) and sent to a French penal colony. He becomes friends with counterfeiter Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) and the two start planning an escape. After several false starts and others joining the team, they manage to get out -- but their trials and tribulations are by no means over. Papillon, if I recall correctly, was a very big hit and a feel-good movie about the indominability of the human spirit. It is also very much a Hollywood movie that often tries to stay on a "light" level despite the grimness of the proceedings. At first McQueen just seems to be walking through his role -- and Hoffman hardly ever seems anything other than Dustin Hoffman in a prison skit -- but with the aid of effective make up he is more impressive in the later scenes. Papillon has to be taken with a grain of salt, as Charriere's memoirs, upon which the film is based, were later determined to be largely fictional; he was never on Devil's Island for instance. McQueen was forty-three when he did this picture, four years older than Charriere was when he made his final escape, although the actor is made up to look like a senior citizen and emotes that way as well; this is not only highly-fictionalized but on occasion plays like a parody. Victor Jory [Cat-Women of the Moon] plays an old Indian chief who wants his own tattoo; Anthony Zerbe is the leader of a colony of lepers; Bill Mumy ["It's A Good Life"] is a young convict who essentially commits suicide; Don Gordon [The Final Conflict], Woodrow Parfrey and Robert Deman are all other convicts who get involved in the big escape one way or another; they are all good. But Papillon, which holds the attention and has a few harrowing moments without ever being really riveting, gets its power not from the performances but from Fred J. Koenekamp's cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith's typically effective musical score.

 Verdict: Not any kind of masterpiece but Papillon's exhaustive efforts to gain his freedom eventually pull you along. ***.


Neil A Russell said...

1973...Holy smokes. I had actually forgotten this film but when you brought it up I instantly remembered the television campaign for it.
I never got around to seeing it though, and now all these years later I'm going to have to seek it out. Especially considering the supporting cast.
73 was the year of some phenomenal stuff like Walter Matthau's "Charlie Varrick" and Warren Oates in "Dillinger".
All somewhat stylized in that 70s Hollywood action fashion; not overblown but still a great watch.
And the purchase is made...I don't know whether Ebay is a blessing or a curse!

William said...

That's a good question. When I want to see a movie, first I check out the public library, then youtube -- making sure the running time of the film is accurate. Then I go to amazon and ebay.

I sometimes find it hard to realize that those old seventies movies that seemed to come out only yesterday are now considered "classics" -- boy, I'm gettin' old!

angelman66 said...

I think I like this one a bit more than you did, Bill, though I totally agree about Steve McQueen's very deglamorized appearance--NOT hot at all. I am a big fan of those epic, romantically scored and beautifully produced films of the 1970s--it really was Hollywood's second golden age, as Neil Russell comments.
Crazy about Dustin Hoffman in anything, so next time this comes on, I'm there!!

William said...

Hope you enjoy it all over again! As we note, the music and photography were of a high order.