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In Case You Missed It: ‘Papillon’ (1973)

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Before there was THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, there was PAPILLON, in my opinion, the finest example of a prison drama followed closely by THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. PAPILLON is based on the memoir written by Henri Charriere, who was convicted of murder and spent his sentence as an inmate in the island prison of French Guiana. The film recounts many of the author’s experiences, but deviates some the from the book. While PAPILLON is said to be based on a true story, much of it’s authenticity has been disputed. Regardless, PAPILLON is a remarkable motion picture worthy of praise.

The opening of a great film can tell the viewer a lot, often by saying very little but doing so with a creative efficiency that says so much. PAPILLON opens with a close-up shot of the warden and his guards briskly marching towards the head of a new batch of prisoners, stripped naked, standing arms length apart in the sun. Showing only their crisply ironed black slacks and shiny, polished black shoes, the names “STEVE MCQUEEN” and “DUSTIN HOFFMAN” appear in large, bold capitol letters over this shot. This is followed by the official addressing the new inmates as to the rules of their stay. What we are about to witness over the 150 minutes to follow is the story of two men who must endure the harsh life of a prisoner on the island of French Guiana.

Steve McQueen plays Henri “Papillon” Charriere, a large man with a tattoo of a blue butterfly on his chest, giving him the nickname “Papillon” which means “butterfly”. Charriere was convicted of killing a pimp named Roland le Petit, but maintained a strong opposition to his sentence of life in prison plus ten years hard labor. He persistently contended that his accusations were false, giving his story an element of human drama in hope and hardship. In the film, the character was always referred to as “Papillon” and never his real name, but his true name does appear on the door of his solitary confinement cell.

Dustin Hoffman plays Louis Dega, a smart but puny little man imprisoned for counterfeiting. Dega is nearly blind, sporting a thick pair of spectacles. Dega’s reputation preceeds him as the best at what he does, leading Charriere to offer Dega protection in return for a mutually beneficial friendship. Dega befriends Charrierre after the two men come to learn more about each other. Dega and Charriere’s playfully casual business relationship is highlighted in the following quote…

Dega: “Do you remember what the chicken said to the weasel?”
Charriere: “If he was a healthy weasel, the chicken didn’t get a chance to say anything. Think about that.”

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Charriere’s mind is set upon the planning and execution of his daring escape from the island prison, but to do so he needs cash. This, in the beginning, lays the groundwork for his relationship with Dega, trading protection for the funds needed to escape. Over time, as the harsh reality of the two men’s situations become abundantly clear, Dega decides he would like to escape with Charriere after all. Even though Charriere’s first attempt fails, landing him in solitary, he does not give up hope and seemingly wills his eventual escape. Charriere’s dreams of freedom, or more likely malnutrition-induced hallucinations, fuel his drive to push on despite his physical, and mental anguish.

PAPILLON was a pitoval and important role for both actors. McQueen had already established himself in tough-guy rebel role with THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE CINCINNATI KID and BULLIT. Dustin Hoffman has already established himself as a talented and veratile actor with THE GRADUATE, MIDNIGHT COWBOY and STRAW DOGS. Now, the two rising stars would have an opportunity to show a more personal level of acting. Hoffman is great, but McQueen really shines in PAPILLON, especially in the middle third of the film during his long and torturous two-year stint in solitary confinement. McQueen’s Charriere becomes a ghost-like, shell of a man that refuses to be beaten by the cruel treatment of his guards. I would not be surprised if Christian Bale found inspiration for his performance in THE MACHINIST from McQueen’s performance in PAPILLON.

In the end, having endured imprisonment and a dangerous escape, Charriere finds that rebuilding a life on the outside may prove equally difficult, but it’s a difficulty sweetened by the taste of freedom, albeit brief. The ultimate fates of Charriere and Dega remain to be witnessed on the opposite end of this harrowing journey, but it’s an outcome worth reaching on your own.

PAPILLON was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (PLANET OF THE APES, PATTON, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL) who has a brilliant eye for framing a static shot that is equally dynamic as much of the busy, frantic camerawork used today. The scene of the fresh prisoners being marched down a narrow street lined with ornate and rustic architecture, filled with scores of the town’s citizens staring silently at their new neighbors, features a simple crane shot from the points crests of the buildings down to the cobblestone street of onlookers. The scene cuts to a typical medium shot of the prisoner’s approach, but then cuts again to one of the most amazing shot of the film, displaying the visual aptitude of Schaffner in his collaboration for the cinematographer.

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Director of Photography Fred J. Koenekamp (THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE TOWERING INFERNO, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) had previously worked with Schaffner on PATTON (1970) which won incredibly high praise from critics and the public alike. Fred’s father Hans was a cinematographer and special effects expert, clearly having made an influence on his son to pursue the same trade with stunning talent and passion. PAPILLON is rich with dramatic contrast and lighting that gives many of the prison scenes a dark, alluring essence that contradicts the filthy, gritty environment within which the scenes take place.

PAPILLON features an appropriately mixed use of steady, moving shots and more unstable handheld shots, determined strictly by the need of perspective and visual interpretation. Two extremely successful visual elements to keep an eye on in PAPILLON are the tremendous editing job accomplished by Robert Swink (Roman Holiday, Midway) and the subtle use of visual imagery to reinforce a subconscious feeling of being imprisoned. One of the more noticeable example early in the film is during the prisoners’ march through town and a three-quarter overhead shot peers through tree branches in the foreground, creating the sense of being behind bars, awaiting the new additions to the penal colony.

Composer Jerry Goldsmith (PLANET OF THE APES, PATTON, CHINATOWN, ALIEN, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE) created the score for PAPILLON, giving the film an additional element of mood and emotion. PAPILLON was nominated for four awards, winning two German awards, but did not take the Golden Globe for Steve McQueen as Best Actor, nor did the Oscar for Best Music – Original Dramatic Score go to Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith lost the Oscar to Marvin Hamlisch for THE WAY WE WERE. To be bluntly honest, I have yet to figure out how PAPILLON wasn’t at least nominated for Best Cinematography. This Oscar deservedly went to Ingmar Bergman’s CRIES & WHISPERS, beating out THE STING, JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL, THE EXORCIST and THE WAY WE WERE.

More than thirty years after it’s release, PAPILLON still maintains a very high level of popularity, currently boasting an 8 out of 10 rating from over 24,930 votes on IMDB and a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomato-Meter. PAPILLON remains an excellent piece of cinematic storytelling and a wonderful film to remember McQueen by, who would make only four more films. The DVD was originally released in 1999, then re-released in 2005. However, both versions offer the same limited special features including the original theatrical trailer and a behind-the-scenes documentary called THE MAGNIFICENT REBEL.

Hopeless film enthusiast; reborn comic book geek; artist; collector; cookie connoisseur; curious to no end

5 Comments

  1. Michelle

    August 3, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    What a fabulous and insightful article, Travis. Spot on!
    Hard to believe PAPILLON didn't make a better showing at the Oscars that year. Excluding THE STING, 1973's nominated films in the Best Picture category was a mess and the fact that Fred J. Koenekamp's cinematography wasn't given the nod is a crime.

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