[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
Like Franklin Schaffner’s previous picture NicholasandAlexandra, Papillon improves markedly in the second half. Not that, in the manner of a true roadshow, Papillon has an intermission (at least not in its present berth at the Coliseum—don’t take bets on the second run). And in some respects that’s what it looked to be, a roadshow: 150-minutes running time, reported $13,000,000 cost, bestseller origin. But the producers’ spectacular ambitions are undercut time and again by two factors: by the fact that the essential dramatic interest inheres in the grotesquely confined agonies of one man and, beyond that, in the unlikely (which is to say, in entertainment terms, likely) friendship and love of two men; and by the very nature of Franklin Schaffner as a director—that he is also one of the producers serves not so much to contradict my idea of Schaffner the director as to index an ambivalence that is the richest source of tension in the movie. Schaffner came from TV, and while he has few of the obnoxious visual affectations of the TV-trained director, he tends to restrict the most significant actions and relationships in his films to spatial arenas that could be served very adequately by the tube rather than the Panavision screen: the real convention hustle in TheBestMan takes place in hotel rooms, hallways, and basements; the tensest moments in his strange and (to me) very sympathetic medieval mini-epic The WarLord are confined to a small soundstage clearing or that besieged tower; the battle scenes in Patton are hardly clumsy, but the real show is George C. Scott; and NicholasandAlexandra comes alive only after the royal family has been penned up under the watchful eyes of Ian Holm and then Alan Webb, far from the splendor of St. Petersburg or the shambles of the Great War.
Just days after the final night in the Turner Classic Movies “Summer of Darkness” series—eight successive Fridays dedicated to film noir—comes the debut of four examples of the distinctly American film genre on Blu-ray, two of them making their first appearance on home video in any form in the U.S.
Night and the City (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) (1951), starring a wonderfully weaselly Richard Widmark as a two-bit American con man in London, is one of the greatest film noirs set in a foreign capital. Widmark’s Harry Fabian is a restless hustler at the bottom of the underworld food chain. His long history of failed get-rich-quick schemes hasn’t dampened the naïve enthusiasm that this one “can’t lose,” much to the dismay of his long-suffering girlfriend (Gene Tierney). His latest scheme, however, pits him against London’s wrestling kingpin (Herbert Lom) and he uses everyone within reach to put his precarious plan together, including the corpulent nightclub owner (Francis L. Sullivan) who hires Harry to tout his club around town and the owner’s calculating wife (Googie Withers), who drafts Harry into her plot to escape her husband and open her own club. She should know better than to put her trust in a man blinded by his own fantasies of success built on other people’s money.
Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives)
Glenn Ford made his feature debut in this 1939 populist drama, a road movie about riding the rails across America in what would be the final years of the Depression. While he’s fourth billed (behind Jean Rogers, Raymond Walburn, and Marjorie Rambeau), he’s the star of the picture, a working class Joe from New York City who spends his entire savings on a ranch in Arizona (sight unseen but a gorgeous pamphlet!) and rides the rails to get to his too-good-to-be-true dream place. This is the tough, defiant Ford that became the grim, urban tough guy of Gilda and the calloused cowboy loner of numerous westerns in protean form, not even 25 years old but already with a chip on his shoulder and the obstinate attitude of a guy who has taken care of himself for so long he figures he knows it all.
The film is directed by Ricardo Cortez, longtime romantic leading man and character actor (and the first Sam Spade in the 1931 “The Maltese Falcon”), during a brief burst of filmmaking in the B-unit of 20th Century Fox when good roles were getting scarce, and written by Dalton Trumbo before he graduated to the top of the screenwriting ranks. But if it’s a B-movie by definition — it runs a mere 65 minutes and makes the most of minimal resources: New York is a stock street set surrounded by stock footage, hobo camps and rail-side meadows are tiny studio sets with painted backdrops, and the few location shots are surely just down the street from the studio lot — it’s a B-movie with ambition.
This slice-of-life story on the road is a piece of American populism with a different brand of optimism and pluck than the sentimental Capra-corn of “Meet John Doe.” Joe is a street-smart guy with a go-it-alone attitude tossed into a world he hasn’t the first clue how to navigate. A flop as a hitchhiker, he hops a boxcar and gets a quick education from veteran hobo Tony (Richard Conte, making his own film debut under his given name Nicholas Conte). Before he knows it he’s formed a family on the road with Anita (Jean Rogers), an illegal immigrant from Spain (though her contrived broken-English accent sounds more Dutch than Spanish), and The Professor (Raymond Walburn), a former academic on hard times with the patter of a con-man and the heart of a philanthropist. Along the way, they pass through a hobo camp (where Ward Bond has a bit as a brawny brute), a saloon that could have come from the old west, and a Russian Orthodox community that opens their arms and their culture to the crew. None of Capra’s corrupt fat cat industrialists or fast-talking reporters looking to rib the rubes here, just folk trying to get by.
And along with the melting pot of immigrant America and rural decency is a jab of international politics: Anita is an orphan of the Spanish Civil War, fleeing the Fascist forces that killed her parents and took her family farm. Just the kind of thing that Trumbo could slip in as long as he didn’t mention names or make a speech of it. As far as that goes, the term “Depression” is never uttered, which was surely not necessary for audiences who recognized the reality of hard times, scares jobs, and armies of homeless shown in screen.
This quartet navigates hunger and homelessness, railroad bulls and hobo bullies, a gunshot wound, an arrest warrant, and more, but for all the hardships and setbacks, “Heaven” maintains an optimistic sense of American generosity and acceptance in hard times. Joe can’t go it alone after all — what does a city boy know about ranching and farming in the southwest climes? — and he doesn’t need to. He’s got family.
The print is perfectly acceptable, not restored but decently preserved and mastered and as good as anything that 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives has debuted to date. There’s minimal wear on the print and the soundtrack and solid, stable image.