Papillon is director Franklin J. Schaffner’s second title on the list, Steve McQueen’s second, and Dustin Hoffman’s fourth. I have a vague recollection of starting this movie a few times in the distant past but never getting especially far. I always attributed it to not being in the right frame of mind, or I started it too late at night, or something like that. I was actually looking forward to it. I know Steve McQueen is greatly respected and I need to see more of his films to really understand his appeal. Not that he was bad here, but I haven’t been especially fond of either of his titles on the list. Papillon is essentially a prison film, though it makes the prison in Cool Hand Luke look like a day at the beach. Ironically, there actually is a beach here as the film is set in the prison on Devil’s Island. Papillon(McQueen) and Dega(Hoffman) are two Frenchmen sent to the island prison. As Dega is small, weak, and rich, he realizes that he may not last long without protection, so he strikes a deal with Papillon. Papillon will keep Dega safe and in return, Dega will finance any escape attempts for Papillon. The rest of the film is essentially Papillon being obsessed with escape. Perhaps the most interesting part in all of this is his long period in solitary confinement as it truly underscores the brutality of the place. At one point late in the film, they seem to realize they’re repeating themselves and speed up the storytelling process. At one point we’re treated to a montage in which it appears he’s succeeded and then he’s caught again. He goes back into solitary and, rather than show us again, it skips to him getting out. At this point he’s given a cottage with relative freedom very near Dega. They’re both pretty broken by the process at this point and seem to be shuffling and a bit senile. Dega has basically accepted his lot, but Papillon is still obsessed with escape. He comes up with a plan that essentially comes down to jumping off a cliff into the water and floating on a burlap sack filled with coconuts to a free island. Dega can’t go through with it, but Papillon insists that it will work. The last shot of the film has Papillon floating on his coconuts and cackling that he “beat the bastards.” Of course, this all looks so absurd that the assumption is that he will drown or get caught. But we’re told by a postscript that Papillon indeed floated to safety and lived the rest of his life a free man. I didn’t know whether to feel cheated or just lied to. Apparently, this is somewhat based on a true story, though there have been elements to this story that have been challenged. But, ultimately, I don’t care about the veracity of the story as much as whether the movie can make me believe it. And it didn’t. If this ending really happened the movie owes it to me to make it more plausible or to show me how it happened. After taking me through two and a half hours of this man struggling through adversity, don’t you owe it to me to show me the triumphant escape rather than present it like some halfassed last minute tacked on happy ending? Guess I didn’t care for this one much. I’ve liked the work of many involved with this film. Just not this one.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m an admirer of Roger Ebert’s writing style. Though this project has made me more aware of the times I violently disagree with him, I always find him informative and interesting. His review of Sleeper also added an element of time capsule in the fact that it highlights something I had somehow not noticed. As amazing a time as this period was for film, it was not especially fruitful for comedy. Though this would change significantly in 1974, it was certainly true in 1973. His review states, “Sleeper establishes Woody Allen as the best comic director and actor in America, a distinction that would mean more if there were more comedies being made…Mel Brooks only seems to get geared up every three years or so, but Allen is prolific as well as funny.” Of course, this would change with two classic Brooks films in 1974 as well as a group from England called Monty Python, but this really put things in perspective. When I told some friends about the list early on, some openly scoffed at some of the Allen titles, and I’ve acknowledged that the previous title was a little uneven, but in this context it makes a little more sense. Sleeper concerns Miles Monroe(Allen), who went into St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1973 for a common operation, and for some reason, was cryogenically frozen and finds himself being revived in 2173. It turns out that 2173 is a totalitarian society of some sort where everyone is catalogued, so he’s being defrosted by rebels in an effort to use him because the government has no record of him. And I think I’ll stop with the plot description there, because what I’ve written already makes it sound much more complicated than it is. This is Allen in his silly phase, but that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have a point or two. The authorities are oppressive, but of course the resistance takes itself too seriously. As Miles navigates this landscape, he serves as somewhat of a commentator on the human condition and the absurdity of political cycles. There are a number of hilarious scenes, some of them an homage to silent cinema, but for some reason, I was struck by one scene where, in an attempt to acclimate Miles to his new environment, they attempt to recreate dinner with his parents. Miles takes a left turn and starts thinking he’s Blanche DuBois. While following the “don’t wake the sleepwalker” rule, they start improving a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire with Diane Keaton doing an impression of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. If anyone is reading this and doesn’t get these references, I think that’s kind of my point. And I think you’ll still find the scene funny.