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.