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Kyle Smith (Twitter: @rkylesmith) is critic-at-large for National Review, theater critic for The New Criterion and the author of the novels Love Monkey and A Christmas Caroline. Type a title in the box above to locate a review.

Buy Love Monkey for $4! "Hilarious"--Maslin, NY Times. "Exceedingly readable and wickedly funny romantic comedy"--S.F. Chronicle. "Loud and brash, a helluva lot of fun"--Entertainment Weekly. "Engaging romp, laugh-out-loud funny"-CNN. "Shrewd, self-deprecating, oh-so-witty. Smith's ruthless humor knows no bounds"--NPR

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    “Papillon” on Blu-Ray

    By kyle | May 24, 2011

    “Papillon,” one of the signature films of the 1970s, appears on Blu-Ray today . When I was a kid I was mesmerized by the movie, which always seemed to be on CBS on Wednesday nights, though it ran 3 hours with commercials and I would always fall asleep before the end, which I don’t think I saw until I was in my 30s. I’d always assumed it got all the major Oscar nominations but it was virtually shut out, despite containing Steve McQueen’s finest and grittiest performance and a superb turn from Dustin Hoffman, each of them playing resourceful prisoners held at France’s Devil’s Island in the 1930s. The long, intense sequence of McQueen in solitary confinement is one of the finest prison scenes ever, and McQueen was among the first actors to really wreck himself before our eyes. (Paul Newman, in “Cool Hand Luke,” didn’t compare.) Even the famous Newman-caliber blue eyes seem dimmed after the character’s agony in solitary, and the prison guards are more terrifying than the (slightly camp) ones in “Luke.” As a kid, I was haunted by the repeated images of the guillotine in use, and here I must thank my parents for never denying me this valuable nightmare fodder. Give it up, everybody, for the virtues of lax parenting.

    What nails “Papillon,” directed by Frank Schaffner (who also did “Planet of the Apes” and “Patton”) a quintessential 70s work is the use of two brief, startling dream sequences when McQueen’s Papillon loses touch with reality. One shows Papillon wandering through an open desert, in stylish period clothes instead of his prison rags, and encountering an en banc set of judges, the leader of whom pronounces him “Guilty — of a wasted life.” Papillon agrees that he has indeed wasted his life, which adds a shivery additional level to his suffering, and it’s the acknowledgment of failure and complicity in one’s dire fate that is very 70s, almost Kafka-esque. (In literal terms, Papillon is actually innocent of the crimes of which he has been convicted.) A few minutes later, in another fantasy, Papillon happily welcomes a couple of former companions but Schaffner chillingly rotates the camera as the image becomes fraught and poisoned and Papillon calls out, in mechanically slowed tones, “You’re dead.” I think both of these surreal moments are as weirdly haunting as anything Stanley Kubrick ever did, and the sense of man against an immensely powerful and cruel machine is also Kubrickian. Schaffner didn’t get enough respect, and this dark adventure is a must on Blu-Ray.

    Topics: DVD | 9 Comments »

    9 Responses to ““Papillon” on Blu-Ray”

    1. Christian Toto Says:
      May 24th, 2011 at 8:28 pm

      Had the good fortune to see this one over the weekend. A startling piece of work, darn near perfect in all the ways that matter. I’ve never been a McQueen fan. For me, his cool = snooze too often. He’s flat out brilliant here.

    2. kay2the2nd Says:
      May 27th, 2011 at 6:05 pm

      Since originally seeing this in the theater when it was originally released, I’ve thought that prisons like Devil’s Island would reduce the high recidivism rates.

    3. Mark C Says:
      May 27th, 2011 at 8:44 pm

      As you note, this is a lot more serious piece than “Cool Hand Luke” and I thank you for reminding us how good McQueen was, and everyone else who had a hand in it. I might add one other writer whose memory this evokes – think of Camus’ L’Etranger. Great movie, from an era when serious existential contemplation was not held too deep for the public.

    4. George Says:
      May 28th, 2011 at 1:57 am

      Kinda wish you reviewed the Blu-ray treatment as opposed to just the movie. I dont own a Blu-ray player but I would do so just to own this movie if the transfer and a restoration were involved and given a superb review.

    5. Floyd R. Turbo Says:
      May 28th, 2011 at 8:36 am

      I recommend the book too. It’s a “memoir” so Papillon is polishing his own apple a bit, but it’s pretty harrowing in parts.

      Can’t wait to get the movie.

    6. CenturionTerminator Says:
      May 28th, 2011 at 11:23 am

      The movie reminds me of my life, sometimes.

    7. brutony Says:
      May 29th, 2011 at 9:07 am

      It reminds me of whaen I was in the joint! Seriously, this aint out on Blu-Ray yet? Anytime you clowns are ready!

    8. John Van Rijn Says:
      June 9th, 2011 at 10:43 am

      I always admired Franklin Schaffner’s movies for their “real world” portrayal of Alpha Males. That stange spiritual connection to his characters also features in “The Warlord and “Patton”. I have just posted a three-part appreciation of Frnakling Schaffner on my website. If anyone would like to read it, the link is here


    9. Dave Says:
      April 19th, 2012 at 11:19 pm

      Well written review! I too as a boy of 9-10 was able to watch it due to lax parenting and his dream when he said ‘you’re dead’ gave me goose bumps up my back at the time and I never forgot this scene. Great film making. Thanks.