Wednesday, 1 August 2012

“Papillion”. A Review Of The 1973 Prison-Drama Movie Starring Steve McQueen And Dustin Hoffman – Now Reissued Onto A US ‘Book Pack’ BLU RAY In 2011.

"...I'm Still Here!"

This is the first US Warner Brothers 'Book Pack' (or Digibook as they sometimes call it) that I've bought on BLU RAY and I'm impressed. It's beautifully presented - and more important - the print has been restored to a truly fantastic degree throughout. There are rarely any occasions when the transfer doesn't show the sweat and grime of this protracted prison drama with anything less than properly gorgeous clarity. It didn't look this good on DVD and that's for damn sure (and it's reasonably priced too).

Released May 2011 (barcode: 883929172764) - the other good news for fans outside of the USA is that it's a REGION FREE issue - so will play on every machine.

The booklet is 36-pages long and features both full-colour and black-and-white prints of the actors, Director Franklin J. Schaffner ("The Caine Mutiny", "12 Angry Men" and "Planet Of The Apes") and on-set photographs and key scenes from the movie. There's also an info-page pasted to the back of the hardback sleeve but it's flimsy and creases easily - so you might want to put the whole thing in a protective plastic. The disc itself not surprisingly sports a Butterfly logo. But I'd have to say that the side is let down somewhat by the supposed 'Special Features'. Apart from a "Theatrical Trailer" - the lone extra is called "The Magnificent Rebel" which lasts just over 12 minutes. Hoffman says a few words, McQueen nothing - however - it does feature the real Charriere revisiting the set designed by people who'd worked on "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Patton" - a full scale rebuilding of his prison - complete with gates, walls, cells and guillotine. His ruminations are not surprisingly bitter - "Society does not want free wants men to march like sheep..." - all police are corrupt - the judicial system vengeful. An unexpected up is that it does at least let you see just how bad the original footage was before restoration - covered in scratches, washed out and undefined...

Cited by one drama teacher in the early Sixties as "least likely to succeed as an actor" - DUSTIN HOFFMAN had just come off a stunning run of layered performances in "The Graduate" (1967), "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), "Little Big Man" (1970) and "Straw Dogs" (1971). But for me his best nerd-in-over-his-head character is in 1973's "Papillon" where he absolutely aced it again with his beautifully controlled portrayal of Louis Dega. Dega is a weedy counterfeiter given life imprisonment for money fraud that cost several members of the French Government dear. Such is the severity of life in these tropical prisons and their inhospitable environs (chained communal bedrooms to swamp detail and back again) - Dega with his sticky-taped bifocals is unlikely to live let alone make parole. When the warden warns the arriving inmates in the yard talk to "Make the best of what we offer you...and you will suffer less..." he isn't joking. Those who attempt escape (and are caught) are publicly beheaded. If he doesn't rot to death in solitary - Dega will be stabbed in his sleep for his knowledge. The only way for Louis to survive is to buy protection. In this he is unwillingly paired with Henri Charriere (played by STEVE McQUEEN) - a man claiming he's innocent because he was framed for murder - but an inmate genuinely capable of handling himself and others. Charriere sports a Butterfly tattoo on his chest ('Papillon' in French) and is a spirit that will not be contained no matter what the dehumanizing regimes throw at him (long spells in solitary on barely subsistence food). Across 14 years that feel like 40 and 8 failed escape attempts - the wildly differing duo are then finally sent to the notorious penitentiary on Devil's Island - a rock in the Atlantic off the coast of South America (owned at that time by French Guiana) that also houses a leper colony. Surrounded by cliffs and an unforgiving sea - escape (they are told) is not possible. But even bruised, battered and considerably older by the end of the film - Papillon has other ideas...

It has to be said that this is a long movie - and decades of incarceration and brutality may not be everyone's idea of a fun night in. But the fantastical twisting story (which at times beggars belief - the nun's segment in particular) and the two leads firing on all sixes - produces a damn near irresistible combination. Both McQueen and Hoffman wisely avoid the trap of a buddy-buddy movie. These are two prisoners who don't even like each other much but have to co-exist in a living Hell. Yet both actors got under the skin of their characters so much that there are moments when Dega and Charriere simply look at each other and silently 'know' - dreams of freedom must be repressed - just thinking about it is too painful and wearing...

McQueen's 'Papillon' in particular (whether based on a real man or not) is a fantastic creation. Wilful yet somehow kind - bloody-minded yet fair - his Papillon is infused with an indomitable spirit. When in one of his long solitary confinement stretches (surviving on pacing the cell and eating cockroaches) - he looks up at the shaft of light above him coming through the steel bars he can't reach and croaks with defiance "Hey! You bastards! I'm still here!" Waist-deep in stinking rivers and thick mud, bedding on hard concrete floors and traipsing around in bedraggled rags in the ever-present swelter (partially filmed in Jamaica) - McQueen suffered for the part. But he knew it had substance and soul - so he dug in to find his man...and succeeded with grace and dignity. The role even replaced Steve McQueen 'The Star' with Steve McQueen 'The Actor' - ditching his 'coolest man on Earth' persona and proving his critics wrong.

"Papillon" is a magnificent film - still resonant to this day nearly 40 years after the event. It may leave you feeling like you've taken a day-long hike through the desert with the Foreign Legion followed by a nice relaxing full body dip in a cesspool to cool down afterwards - but it's a difficult watch that is 'so' worth the difficulty.

Recommended big time...

BLU RAY Specifications:
PICTURE: 1080p High Definition, 16 x 9 and 2.4:1 Aspect Ratios (Fills Full Screen)
AUDIO: DTS-HD Master Audio, English 5.1
SUBTITLES: English for Hard-Of Hearing, French and Spanish
EXTRAS: Theatrical Trailer and a 12-minute featurette called "The Magnificent Rebel"

PS: I'm sure I speak for many film fans when I say this - my wish would be that Warner Brothers would start reissuing their superb classic back-catalogue in this 'Book Pack' style here in the UK. Why are the British and European marketplaces being so short-changed on this?

Also - if you want an idea of what titles are available Stateside that play on UK machines - see my List Number 81 on Amazon UK entitled "US BLU RAYS That Are Better Than UK (And Play Here Too)"

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