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The Essential Steve McQueen Collection

  • Bullitt: Special Edition
  • The Cincinnati Kid
  • The Getaway
  • Never So Few
  • Papillon
  • Tom Horn
  • Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and co-written by Dalton Trumbo, the 1973 Papillon is a triumph party because of the marvelous script and performances, but also because Schaffner and Trumbo made nonconformists, rebels, outsiders, and marginalized souls a specialty. Schaffner saw combat in World War II under the eccentric Gen. George Patton, and had previously helmed both Patton and the man-out-of-time Planet of the Apes, while Trumbo had been blacklisted for years when McCarthyism ran roughshod over Hollywood (some folks saw his Spartacus as a thinly veiled retort). Thus, when it came time to adapt the memoirs of Devil's Island escapee Henri Charriere to the screen, a better team probably couldn't be found. Steve McQueen stars as Charriere, also known as "The Butterfly," "Papillon," or simply "Papi." His conviction on a murder charge — a crime he denies vehemently — sends him to French Guyana, where the officials put most offenders to work in slave camps and send those who cause trouble to Devil's Island, 24 miles from the mainland, where swift currents and hungry sharks ensure that none will leave. But Papi's soul yearns for freedom, compounded by a pride that will never let him bow down to any man, and his several escape attempts often result in betrayal, brutal solitary confinement, and dangerous scrapes with insanity. Only his close friend Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a white-collar Frenchman sent to French Guyana on forgery charges, provides him with any sort of anchor, giving him some much-needed support (emotional and financial) until restlessness and old age cause Papi to make one final attempt at freedom. The sweeping, epic scope of Papillon has earned the film many admirers, and it's handled with careful skill here by Schaffner. Like all great epic films, the fundamental nature of the conflict and the characters involved are conveyed quickly and efficiently, and before long the picaresque journeys of Papillon ensue (his visit to a leper colony is among the film's most moving passages, as is his enigmatic sojourn with an indigenous tribe). Schaffner, like Hitchcock, shows he has the skill, and guts, to render many long scenes without dialogue while never losing pace, and both McQueen and Hoffman, who must carry virtually the entire film by themselves, offer compelling, convincing performances. Score by Jerry Goldsmith. Kudos to Warner for getting this one out in the original 150-minute cut, rather than the abridged 132 minutes of some alternate prints. Excellent widescreen transfer from a near-pristine source print (a print so rich with tropical colors it looks like it was made yesterday). Supplements include a trailer and a brief featurette from 1973 with the still-living Charriere. Good street price, snap-case.
    —Robert Wederquist

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