For this month's segment I thought I would dip back into the well and highlight another great Steve McQueen film. Arguably my favorite actor, along with Cary Grant, I have seen almost all of Steve's films and have all that are currently available on DVD. I previewed The Magnificent Seven in my first installment, I thought that I would pick an underrated film from McQueen's library.
When you say Steve McQueen, most people think about the memorable motorcycle jump stunt from The Great Escape, or the streets of San Francisco car chase in Bullitt. All these films help to accentuate the character that Steve was trying to play, the tough, laconic, lone rebel. In 1973's Papillon, he perfected that image.
McQueen plays a wrongfully accused French petty criminal who is sentenced to Devil's Island prison in French Guiana named Henri, also known as Papillon (French for butterfly as he has a large tattoo of one.) He befriends Dustin Hoffman character, Dega, on the boat ride to prison and agree to help each other escape. Papillon attempts escape many times, always resulting in recapture. Eventually imprisoned in solitary confinement as punishment and surviving through brutal conditions, he refuses to give in.
McQueen gives what I consider to be his finest acting performance despite being snubbed for an Oscar nomination, especially given sharing the screen opposite Hoffman. Hoffman, a method actor, would often do take after take to get the right performance. McQueen was known for giving his best takes on the first or second try. This was also filmed at the peak of McQueen's stardom, at a point where his womanizing and off screen antics were at their largest (many believing this is why the Oscars snubbed him) yet he reportedly got along well with Hoffman.
The scenes of McQueen in solitary confinement really show the range that he had, and the ability. Acting with little to no human interaction and conveying the sense of grueling starvation and weakness showed what he was capable of. And the character is the essence of Steve, hard unyielding and unrelenting, yet still the noble streak of humanity at the core. The final scenes with an aging and battered Steve and Hoffman are also very poignant, and the final shot of Steve in the surf at one more escape attempt is a reminder why he really was the essence of cool.
The movie is based on a true story of Papillon, yet many historians believe that much of the facts may not be accurate, but that doesn't change the film or its enjoyment for me. Steve McQueen is the actor that opened my eyes to classic films, and for that I am grateful. I wholeheartedly recommend Papillion for your enjoyment.
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