Saturday, September 14, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—Papillon (1973) ***½

R, 150 min.
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Writers: Dalton Trumbo, Lorenzo Semple Jr., Henri Charriére (book)
Starring: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory, Don Gordon, Anthony Zerbe, Robert Deman, Woodrow Parfrey, Bill Mumy, George Coulouris, Ratna Assan, William Smithers

I never thought of Steve McQueen as much of an actor until I saw him in “The Cincinnati Kid”. Even in that film, his acting was on such a subtle level, that it would be easy to miss it if you weren’t a trained actor. He still plays pretty much the same type of character in that film as he usually does. In “Papillon” he really stretches his acting chops, and the results are surprisingly impressive.

“Papillon” is based on the memoir of the famous French thief, Henri Charriére, also known as Papillon or “the butterfly”, because of the tattoo of one he bore on his chest. He claimed to have escaped from the penal colony located in French Guiana several times, including the supposedly inescapable area known as Devil’s Island. The French government released records that indicated Charriére’s book to be his own fantasy. Still, sometimes fiction is better than truth, and the movie gives us a slightly altered version of Charriére’s account.

As a prison escape flick, we get pretty much the standard fare here, except it takes place in the very unusual location of French Guiana. The whole thing hinges on McQueen’s performance and another unusual performance by Dustin Hoffman as Charriére’s friend and fellow escapee, Louis Dega. Both actors make these men more interesting than your average prison breakers. The solitary sequences bring McQueen’s to the brink of insanity, a state that McQueen handles quite effectively.

“Papillon” has become thought of as a borderline classic since its initial release, never quite achieving the level of praise as director Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Patton” or “Planet of the Apes”. It doesn’t deserve to be held in quite the same esteem as those. However, the two lead performances are two of the best from two of the brightest stars of the 70s. 

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