by Pauline Kael
Solemnity is a crippling disease that strikes moviemakers when they’re on top: a few big hits and they hire Dalton Trumbo and go into their indomitable-spirit-of-man lockstep. Papillon, the most expensive movie of the year, is a thirteen-and-a-half-million-dollar monument to the eternal desire of moviemakers to win awards and impress people. How can you play around and try out ideas on a property like the Henri Charriere best-seller, which probably cost a couple of million to start with, and with stars (Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman) who definitely cost three and a quarter million between them? It would be like juggling with the Elgin Marbles. What should have been an entertaining escape-from-Devil’s Island thriller, with some laughs, some suspense, and some colorful cutthroats and likable thieves, has been treated not as if it were an escape story but as if it were the escape story. The story has become practically abstract, and for much of the time the movie can’t be bothered telling us where Papillon (Steve McQueen) is escaping from or where he hopes to go. The moviemakers have approached the subject of Papillon (a French safecracker who was sentenced to prison for life for killing a pimp and who, thirty-odd years after he broke out, trumped up his adventures into a best-seller about his many escape attempts) as if they were making an important historical biography — about a pope, at the very least.
The stark ad showing McQueen and Hoffman sweating in their chains seems to be looking for a caption: “What do you mean, what am I doing here? What are you doing here?” It’s understandable that, at a cost of two million, Steve McQueen can become an icon to moviemakers, but to put him in a role that requires an intense audience identification with the hero’s humanity — the sort of role Jean Gabin played in La Grande Illusion and Pepe le Moko — is madness. McQueen is an amusing actor of considerable skill but a reserved actor whose expressive resources are very small. That’s what’s fun about him: when he’s placed in tense situations, his tiny, tiny shades of expression become a witty caricature of the American man of action’s emotionlessness. If ever there was a wrong actor for a man of great spirit, it’s McQueen; as Robert Mitchum once remarked, “Steve doesn’t bring too much to the party.”
Actually, no actor could have saved this unrelievedly grim picture — not with the Trumbo-Lorenzo Semple, Jr., script, which keeps Papillon shackled and penned up (Trumbo has only one arrow to his bow, and he shot it in The Fixer), and not with Franklin J. Schaffner, late of Nicholas and Alexandra, directing. Schaffner has a clean, precise camera style for spectacle (The War Lord, Planet of the Apes, Patton), but there’s no spectacle in Papillon’, there are a few scenes involving lots of extras but no large-scale action. A director such as John Boorman (Deliverance), with his hypnotic talent for charging an atmosphere with fear, might have been able to give even this hollow script some tension, but Schaffner is immaculately literal-minded. Nothing is hidden beneath the methodical progression of the scenes; the film is totally obvious, and there isn’t a laugh in its two and a half hours. I was grateful each time Dustin Hoffman turned up, simply because he tries to do something for characterization and he has more life than McQueen. Hoffman usually seems to think he needs a physical gimmick for his characters. He’s playing Louis, a smart, rather pedantic convict who was “the best counterfeiter” in France, so the thick lenses make sense (though they’re the thickest lenses I’ve ever seen), but why does he go through the picture with his mouth open, like some adenoidal chinless wonder? Is he trying to be helpful by making himself different from McQueen? (He really doesn’t have to worry about that.) This co-starring arrangement between men needs the right chemistry, but McQueen doesn’t supply for Hoffman what Voight did in Midnight Cowboy. The reverse happens: McQueen seems to inspire Hoffman to underplay, too. When Papillon prepares for his final escape and Louis says he’s not going, he sounds as if he had decided not to shave that day. Theirs is the only emotional bond in the movie, and there’s hardly any emotion in it.
All the actors seem too gentlemanly to become characters, and Schaffner too gentlemanly to get anything going in the meticulously constructed sets; authenticity seems to be in everyone’s mind, but authenticity of what — of Henri Charriere’s self-glorifying adventure romance? I don’t really understand Schaffner’s concept: after the two principals have been separated for five years, they meet somewhere out on Devil’s Island and the cranky, fussy Louis sees Papillon and scuttles away from him — presumably because he doesn’t want to become involved in another escape attempt. But the scene is so barren of feeling that we have to interpret the action; the actors supply hardly a clue. Besides, I was confused — and others may be also — because I thought Louis’s gangrenous leg had been amputated in an earlier sequence, and now he was hopping about on two perfectly good hoppers. And is McQueen really meant to represent the Henri Charriere who wrote Papillon? He doesn’t seem to have any words in him. I didn’t understand why he wasn’t perfectly content when he was on some (unspecified) island with friendly villagers and a loving native girl: true, he didn’t speak the language, but most of his earlier communication had been with cockroaches in his cell. I know we’re meant to take joy in McQueen’s final victory — the proof that he couldn’t be broken — but I was glad that he’d finally made it only because I didn’t want to have to go back to solitary with him.
Papillon is a strange mixture of grimness and propriety. There are unnecessary brutalities involving characters we hardly know (after an eighteen-year-old convict is killed, we get a close view of his bleeding head; a man is guillotined, and his head rolls toward the audience), and at the same time the movie absolutely refuses the audience any comic relief. (One gets the impression that Schaffner would consider it “levity.”) Hoffman’s counterfeiter goes through most of the picture subsidizing McQueen’s escape attempts with a fortune he carries in a tube in his colon, and as the years pass and he keeps paying and paying, you can’t help wondering how much money he can be carrying there. The picture is so sedate it never satisfies our curiosity; is that because when a star costs as much as Dustin Hoffman you don’t make jokes about the bankroll he’s sitting on?
New Yorker, December 24, 1973