Saturday, 5 November 2016

1,001 Films: "Papillon" (1973)

For its opening hour, Papillon - Franklin J. Schaffner's film of Henri Charriere's memoir - looks like an ungainly attempt to cross the prison drama with Laurel-and-Hardy-like odd-couple knockaround. A mannered Dustin Hoffman as fumbling forger Dega and Steve McQueen as the laconically suffering safecracker-patsy of the title are introduced plotting to flee a Guyanan penal colony even as they sit in the bowels of the boat shipping them towards it. Look at McQueen's "why I oughta..." expression as Hoffman bungles the pair's efforts to land a cushy work detail! Chuckle as they fail to wrestle a snapping alligator out of a swamp! Thankfully, Hoffman then sees his thick comedy-prop glasses trampled into the mud, McQueen is locked up in solitary after the first of several escape bids, and the film is transformed into a greatly more substantial proposition: an expressionist portrayal of what it means to exist in a five-by-five cell and wake up every morning in your own filth, complete with freakout dream sequences and long spells of darkness and silence. (Steve McQueen, meet Steve McQueen - for this was the stuff of 2008's Hunger.) Soon after our hero regains his bearings, Hoffman returns to his old ways and specs, and the second attempted breakout is staged as a Keystone Kops routine (uptempo music, guards getting clonked on the bonce); by this point, you'll either be hooked on the old-school storytelling expertise (care of Schaffner and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) or you will have switched over in exasperation. The remainder of this long, gruelling experience is a procession of grisly horrors - leper colonies, amputations, death traps, duplicitous nuns, softcore frolics with topless natives, incipient old age - assuaged by a big bag of coconuts and held together by McQueen at his most vigorous. Here's a performance that senses exactly how hard it is for a guy to retain his cool, and his marbles, when he's shitting in a bucket and pulling out his own teeth.

Papillon is available on DVD through UCA.

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