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Papillon Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 1, 2006

    Papillon Review
    Actually released a while ago in the States, this collection of movies featuring officially The Coolest Guy in Cinema, contains a couple of celebrated cult favourites, three DVD debuts and one bona-fide classic. The cult items are Sam Peckinpah's thriller The Getaway and the grungy prison-break marathon of Papillon, whilst the new arrivals on shiny disc are the vintage war film Never So Few, the taut acting masterclass of The Cincinnati Kid and the wonderful end-of-an-era western Tom Horn. The classic, unarguably, is Peter Yates' Dirty Harry forerunner Bullitt (the new 2-Disc Special Edition) which, even today, is a marvellously lean, mean mystery-suspenser. The UK R2 version of this boxset is actually shorn of Papillon, offering just the other five movies.

    Although a big fan of Steve McQueen, I will nevertheless have to reign in my thoughts about the selection here, otherwise this review will stretch to Biblical proportions. So, starting with the earliest first, and carrying on in theatrical release date order, let's see if Steve McQueen is still the Cooler King.

    Never So Few (1959) 124 mins. 29 Chapters. Not Rated

    Actually a starring vehicle for Frank Sinatra, who starts the movie with a bizarre little jungle beard, Never So Few is one of those gloriously colourful (MetroColour, in this case) war films that combines gritty combat, fruity dialogue, comedy and, in a serious downside for this particular example of the fifties staple, far too much romance. As Captain Reynolds, Sinatra leads a ragtag bunch of OSS soldiers against the Japanese in the steamy Burmese jungle. Under his somewhat maverick command are also a contingent of native Kachin rebels, a British commando (Richard Johnson looking a lot like John Hannah in a daft beret), green medic Captain Travis (Peter Lawford), Charles Bronson's fist-happy Navajo trooper and a certain blue-eyed young scene-stealer who would soon find his lucky screen star on the ascendance. As Sgt. Ringa, a wisecracking and authority-flaunting military-misfit who is forever on the take with scams and subterfuge, Steve McQueen hits the story running with the great character-introduction of beating up two army cops and ditching their comatose bodies right before the eyes of his soon-to-be commanding officer. And when he offers Reynolds a tooth brush and some home-made hooch to swill it with, Sinatra's Jap-battler sees skills lacking in his covert brigade and absorbs the rebel, who has only seen combat back home in New York's Hell's Kitchen, into his courageous campaign. With devilish Chinese guerrillas making savage raids over the border and massacring their supply columns, Reynolds and his special squad resolve to pay them a little visit of their own and, thus, the scene is set for some typically jingoistic heroics splashed across the lushly filmed locations.

    Of its sort, Never So Few is actually quite enjoyable. Sinatra makes a likeable, if largely unbelievable, warrior - his crusade to get his wounded Kachins some decent grub in a field hospital is commendable, yet poorly placed in the narrative and seemingly part and parcel of a film that is disappointingly episodic. His illicit, off-duty romance with Gina Lollobrigida back on safe ground takes up a woeful amount of screentime and does nothing to help the story. Lollobrigida, herself, seems completely out of place in this tale of noble warfare and the urge to hasten her scenes along is bound to get the better of you. Bronson provides some dependable muscle and Johnson is never than less than amusing, but McQueen stamps his persona effectively throughout the entire film, his rogue-ish retorts and action-man antics adding a necessary heart and soul to the Boys' Own adventure because he, at least, seems to be enjoying himself. Director John Sturges would, of course, go on to direct McQueen in possibly his most memorable and iconic roles as Vin in The Magnificent Seven and Hilts in The Great Escape, both further examples of Sturges' excellence with large male casts, but his handling of the crowded machismo here is pretty much on the ball, too. And, thankfully, he hurls some neat action into the mix. We get some smart ambushes and running battles, and a great demolition derby when the good guys commandeer enemy jeeps and hurl flaming petrol canisters at a runway full of Japanese planes. It's all very Saturday afternoon-ish escapism, despite the odd garish splash of blood and a wince-inducing scene when some Japanese soldiers run straight on to some cunningly placed spikes. But any attempt at wartime commentary is purely accidental, though it is nice to see the Kachin troops get some recognition in what cannot help but amount to a huge dose of American interventionism.

    The Cincinnati Kid (1965) 102 mins.26 Chapters. Not Rated.

    “I don't need marked cards to beat you, pal!”

    In Norman Jewison's masterful film, Steve McQueen plays Eric Stoner, otherwise known as The Cincinnati Kid, a professional poker player with impeccable street-cred and a reputation that is gaining him notoriety beyond the setting of his New Orleans base. Enough notoriety, in fact, to attract the nation's most renowned grandmaster of the game of stud poker, the legendary supremo Lancey Howard, played by real-life legend Edward G. Robinson, in another colossal performance. Shady characters abound with such high stakes involved - an early victory for The Kid sees a nifty blade to blade stand-off ensue - and the local mover and shaker, Mr.Slade (an awesome Rip Torn), a deep-southern throwback with sinister methods and his own personal shooting gallery down in the basement of his mansion, seeks to have the big game sown up in his favour. By recruiting the brilliant Karl Malden's Shooter, an almost-magician of a dealer, to feed The Kid the right cards to steer him to victory, Mr. Slade hopes to clean up big time. But The Kid has his own pride and reputation on the line ... and he knows he has the real skills to win, too. Thus the scene is set for an incredible card game showdown that will see lots of twists and turns at, and away from, the table.

    Easygoing and immediately likeable, The Cincinnati Kid is the kind of film that breezes confidently along under its own entertainingly offbeat steam. The screenplay crackles with low intensity jibes, bluffs and a heap of playful smarm, with as many tactics going into the clever dialogue as the playing of the game, itself. The Kid is lot like Hilts from The Great Escape, only a little less revved-up, but just as confident and cocky, and simply oozing with rough and ready charm.

    Jewison has an impeccable eye, his compositions are especially striking - great location work on the streets and docks of New Orleans - yet always easy on the eye. He films with a smooth, open style, rarely getting in too close, until the big game, that is, when every nuance of deception is visibly played out on the participants' faces. His cast is uniformly excellent. McQueen is a quietly spoken man of principle - his own principles, of course. The game is everything to him, but he still finds room for romance, which is essential to helping us locate a human spirit within the roguish gambler. Tuesday Weld, as his blinkingly cute young girlfriend Christian, is fresh, naïve and adorable, a free-spirit that begins to find she enjoys her commitment to him, and the pair spark a genuine chemistry that is delightfully off-kilter and touching. Karl Malden, though, owns every scene he is in. As The Kid's best friend, he knows full well the skills at his disposal, but still gives in to dirty dealing when Slade makes him an offer he cannot refuse. Robinson is magnificent. The sheer class of his esteemed poker-Lord lifts the game of all around him, so commanding is his performance. But it is Shooter's girlfriend, Melba Nile (played by the absolutely gorgeous Ann-Margaret) who provides the winning hand in my opinion, with the role of a sly temptress teasing her way through the film. Never hiding her intentions, never losing her cool, she upstages practically everyone with a single pout, or a mischievous smile.

    The big game, when it comes, dominates the entire third act of the film. Despite the rules of high stakes poker being a complete foreign language to me, Jewison ensures that knowledge of the game is largely irrelevant - just watch the faces, read the expressions and feel the beat of each hand that is dealt, and then marvel at the break-time revelations. There's more than just cards and money at stake here, with a gamble that goes way beyond just the game. A poker face can sure come in handy on almost any occasion. The Cincinnati Kid is a dazzling film, extremely rewarding and enjoyable and proving again how well McQueen acts as part of an ensemble, unafraid to share the limelight, or to hold his own amid such acting heavyweights. My only complaint would be about the depiction of a cockfight earlier on. But Jewison, in his commentary, is at pains to point out how bogus the whole thing was, and that no bird was actually hurt in the proceedings. It's still unpleasant, though, even if we do get to see the voluptuous Ann-Margaret in a blood-red dress and with a wickedly gleeful expression on her face when the feathers begin to fly.

    Bullitt (1968) 104 mins. 23 Chapters. PG

    “Does Chalmers run this case, or do I?”

    “All I'm interested in is results. Do what you think is best.”

    Here's the one that everyone knows. An absolute classic, and no mistake. A hard, lean, pared-to-the-bone police thriller that broke the mould for the genre, paving the way for the nihilistic 70's anti-hero vogue to follow. Director Peter Yates found, in his vital precursor to Dirty Harry, that there is no glamour in a detective's life, and McQueen's jaded, cynical and somewhat morose Frank Bullitt sums up the role of the conscientious copper who has had to put up with too much red tape and raging bureaucracy to have any love left for authority. Of course Robert Vaughn's suavely sinister politician, Mr. Chalmers, has ulterior motives for his interest in the mob witness that Bullitt is assigned to watch over. Of course the maverick cop is going to break every rule in the book in his quietly vengeful quest to get to the bottom of the conspiracy that is corrupting everything around him. Of course these elements would become clichés that still continue unabated in the genre today, but back in 1968 this was a riotous twist on established conventions. 1968 was the breakthrough year for many genres in fact, heralding the darker, more downbeat anger of the decade to come - sci-fi had the political and sociological metaphors of Planet Of The Apes, horror had the hugely influential Night Of The Living Dead and Barbarella straddled several styles with erotic ease. So Frank Bullitt's renegade disregard for the puppet masters attempting to pull his strings was just another example of Hollywood tapping into the groundswell of dissatisfaction bubbling beneath the façade of American might.

    Anyway, let's not stifle things with politics, eh? Bullitt is a prime example of textbook police procedural mixed with nitro-glycerine. The sedate pace that Yates keeps throughout the majority of the film ensures that when the action comes it is genuinely exciting and shatters the comfort zone like its title character's namesake. Cleverly structured and realised with a gritty, almost documentary-feel, the plot piles on the intrigue with blank-faced, inscrutable hit-men methodically out to despatch the witness, a wall of conspiracy that Bullitt can sniff out from a mile away, and a spirited corpse theft that effectively pulls the rug from under the bad guys' feet. The violence is great too, with some splashy red shootings and a savage kick to the noggin adding a brutal crunch to the interpersonal mayhem. The surprising thing is that, when viewed today, the film offers such a keenly bleak outlook and a stark, almost improvised vibe that clinically removes any Hollywood gloss that may have once threatened to break in. Bullitt doesn't drop one-liners with monotonous regularity. His close descendent, Harry Callahan - also patrolling the tough streets of San Francisco - may have been just as dogged and isolated, but his oh-so-quotable dialogue elevated him into the realms of cop fantasy. Bullitt's love interest, played by Jacqueline Bisset, supplies scant relief from the dangers of the job, often appearing as a mere bystander to the events that shape Frank's life. It doesn't really help matters that she simply cannot act, either, and many of her scenes feel superfluous and tacked-on, just there to compound the humanity that Frank keeps bottled up within himself. McQueen plays Bullitt straight and by the numbers. His cool, once again, is no cinematic bluff, no character's mask. Before Bullitt he'd taken a few knocks, and even completely reversed his screen persona to play a suave, sophisticated super-thief in Norman Jewison's calculated and measured The Thomas Crown Affair, but here, his rebellious outsider's code enabled him to portray Frank as emotionally removed and cold, yet still maintain that scintillating charisma. Bullitt is a cynic in need of a cause, world weary but refreshingly free of the haunted past that would come to typify later heroes.

    But the movie is fondly remembered for two other classic components besides its attitude-as-a-tattoo star. The funky Lalo Shifrin score, absent for long stretches of the film, is awesome in that jazzed-up retro beat that also came to serve Dirty Harry so well. And, naturally, containing one of the most influential and imitated car chases in motion picture history, Bullitt literally hurls itself into the hi-octane hall of fame. When Frank spies the two hitmen and starts up his Mustang, with only the slightest trace of a wry smile upon his face, we are gearing up for one hell of a full-throttle sequence of vehicular cat and mouse and then all-out, revved-up, roaring road-rage. Check out the masterful way in which the hunted becomes the hunter, and just sit back and admire the driver of the nasties' car - he's so assured and blasé about the whole thing, he resembles an accountant going through the books. I love the way that he just doesn't look like a hitman involved in a do-or-die hot pursuit. Also, keep an eye out for the sign with Mansell St. written on it as the cars roar past. How apt is that? Top stuff from McQueen at the pinnacle of his powers.

    The Getaway (1972) 123 mins. 33 Chapters. PG

    “You'll be back, Doc.”

    The meeting of two of cinema's greatest rebels and mavericks should have resulted in fireworks, yet the conjunction of Steve McQueen and phenomenal director of ultra-macho, movie-mayhem Sam Peckinpah ended up as a fairly damp squib, in my opinion. A film of technique and style over substance, with Peckinpah's patented slow-motion and cross-cutting very much in evidence yet, bizarrely, focussed on the most mundane of activities - like people diving into water, for instance - as opposed to the blood-spurting uber-violence we've come to expect. Expert robber Doc McCoy (McQueen on cold-yet-charismatic form) gets out of jail early and ensconced under the wing, and in the pocket, of Ben Johnson's powerfully-connected string-puller, Jack Benyon who, in return for freeing him, wants Doc to pull off a daring bank heist. So, against his better judgement, and with two untrustworthy strangers in tow, he finds himself robbing the bank and then taking off with the money when double-crossing and murder become the name of the game. Fleeing across country with his wife Carol (the appallingly bad Ali MacGraw) - who had a little more to do with getting him out of jail than merely negotiating with Benyon's mighty influence - he has to fend off the cops, other thieves, and the mobster's goons every step of the way ... as well as come to terms with the unusual relationship he has with Carol. McQueen proves to be the one reliable component in a film that just meanders from comical farce to sudden action, and from whimsy to volatility, when it should be hitting the gas and going for broke right the way through.

    The robbery, itself, is a fudged set-piece and not at all on par with Peckinpah, and the resulting auto-chaos as McCoy and Carol make their initial getaway is preposterously daft and purely gratuitous. “Hey, let's have some crashes and explosions. Why? Well ... because I like 'em, that's why!”, you can hear Peckinpah saying. And then we get the ridiculous narrative wastage of the small-time bag thief who steals their haul at the train station and leads McCoy on a wholly superfluous journey out into the sticks ... and back again. There's a few moments of kids witnessing violence, but any message (as with similar scenes in The Wild Bunch) is squandered by dull dialogue and lethargic thematic thrust. I've not read Jim Thompson's novel on which the film is based, but its plot can't be as bloated a junkyard of needless scenery-chewing as the screenplay turns out to be. We even get a wildly naff interlude set around a dump truck and a rubbish tip that is one of the most contrived sequences I've ever seen in a big A-list film. The episodic nature of the story dilutes any momentum that it may have once had, the resulting cross-country escape and evasion thus losing focus, suspense and, inevitably, interest. It doesn't help matters when one of the two leads is just a stagnant lump of non-talent, who drops the film into a dreary mire whenever she is onscreen ... which, unfortunately is a great deal of the time. Step forward Ali MacGraw and take a bow at the guillotine.

    Never as witty, nor as exciting as it thinks it is being, The Getaway is a trashy film whose only redeeming feature is the presence of Steve McQueen, who still provides a magnetic performance. Even a final, shotgun-pumping shootout in a hotel and a welcome guest spot from Slim Pickens adds too little, too late. This, folks, despite its cult reputation, is the clunker of the pack, I'm afraid. And the next in line doesn't fare a great deal better, either.

    Papillon (1973) 150 mins. 39 Chapters. PG

    “As for France - the nation has disposed of you. France has rid herself of you altogether. Forget France.”

    Based on Henri Charriere's bestselling book chronicling his extraordinary real-life prison memoirs, Papillon (as Charriere is known due to the large butterfly tattooed on his chest) is sadly one of the dreariest films that I've seen and, even viewed as Steve McQueen stretching his acting muscles and, admittedly, on top form, it is a grossly disappointing experience. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who had made the excellent Planet Of The Apes a few years before in that breakthrough year of 1968 I mentioned earlier, Papillon suffers from many faults. The pace is funereal, the setting a grungy and ill-filmed morass that Schaffner fails to imbue with any sort of atmosphere and the screenplay by Dalton (Spartacus) Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jnr. packs in far too much grandiose statement to ultimately allow any sort of personal connection with the two main characters of McQueen's Papillon and his aid-in-escape, the weak and put-upon counterfeiter Louis Dega, played by Dustin Hoffman.

    That the two stars give remarkably fine performances just goes to show that real talent will always shine through even the murkiest, most turgid of material. But, somehow, it is not enough. The relentlessly grim and downbeat tone of the film may accurately reflect what life was like in the hell-hole prison of Devil's Island in French Guyana, but it doesn't make for particularly entertaining viewing. McQueen puts his heart and soul into the role, and I definitely do not blame him for the lack of sympathy felt for a character who is allegedly innocent of the murder he has been sent down for. A relentless free-spirit who simply will not accept his intolerable incarceration, he makes repeated escape attempts, though any nostalgic thoughts of the forever-cheery Hilts will soon evaporate with the harsh realism that Schaffner attempts to evoke, with the severe brutality of captivity in a French Imperialist outpost painstakingly recreated. The horrendous solitary confinement that sees Papillon at the brink of death, let alone madness, and the despair that populates the movie often has the tale becoming a numbing experience that feels like a stretch in the clink, itself. Even so, the film is episodic and with the odd moment of violence - a stabbing here and there and a strange chase sequence with blowpipe-wielding natives. But it still lacks the prison movie appeal of the “us-against-the-system” underbelly that has you rooting for nefarious characters that you probably shouldn't be rooting for at all. Hoffman's Dega is supposed to be the sympathetic core, yet it is Papillon who suffers most. But somehow, we know that Papillon is tougher than all the grief that he receives, somehow we know that he'll make it ... and there goes the emotional connection and the suspense. How can there be a threat when we virtually know the outcome right from the get-go?

    On the plus side, however, we have Jerry Goldsmith's wonderful score that seems to hark back to his unusual and otherworldly music for Planet Of The Apes, and some great jungle locations that really add to the hot, diseased squalor of the characters' deprivations. But, again, it is Steve McQueen who rises above and beyond the often loose and hackneyed script to carve out a very respectable performance and prove, once more, that he was an actor who could turn his hand to any role and make it his own.Tom Horn (1980)

    “If I'd have killed that kid, it'd have been the best shot I ever made. And the worst trick I ever pulled.”

    Tom Horn is a tale of men in very big trousers, set against the vast backdrop of a chilly prairie horizon at the tail end of the Old West. McQueen plays the title role of a renowned tracker and US Cavalry scout, a blood-brother to the Apaches and one of the two legendary frontiersmen (the other being Al Seiber) who brought in Geronimo. Having also worked for the highly regarded Pinkerton Detective Agency and been a champion rodeo star and stagecoach driver, Horn's riding and shooting skills were second to none and his mythical status strode stoically before him. However, when we meet the weather-beaten cowboy, the days of legend are a-dwindling and Horn finds himself in a world that he doesn't recognise, and finds hard to fit into. The times have changed with the advent of a new century and skills such as his are now frowned upon, if not forgotten altogether. As he drifts through the upper hills of the Wyoming prairies though, some old timers who still recall the old days see in Horn the means to eradicate the cattle rustling that is plaguing their Association of ranches. Recruiting him with the title of a stock protector, they virtually unleash the dogged crackshot upon their enemies with suitably devastating results. When Tom Horn is gunning for you, there is literally nowhere for you to hide. With that huge Winchester super-gun that he carries, he could blow a man apart from seemingly impossible distances. Once again, the legend is born ... but this time, the heat of Horn's fame brings catastrophic repercussions with the Western hero hauled in from the wild and arrested for a murder that he didn't commit. This set-up being the ultimate act of betrayal and symbolic of the crushing march of progress. Tom's fate is entwined with that of the old ways, as civilisation callously steamrolls over them and the frontier that bred them.

    It's a sad epitaph for the closing of an era but, in Tom Horn, Steve McQueen found a role very similar to the final one that John Wayne took as an ageing gunfighter in The Shootist. And, although McQueen would still have one more film to follow this before he died, with The Hunter, the knowledge that the end of the line was coming is etched into every crag and line on his face. In many ways this is the perfect, and inevitable, way to bow out. Like the real Tom Horn, McQueen had led an explosively eventful life that had seen incredible highs and lows buffeting the star like the years Horn spent prowling the wild frontier. He was entering into a whole new era of movies, the late seventies Star Wars floodgates had opened and ushered in genres of which he had no comprehension and attitudes he had no stomach for. In a cruelly ironic twist, the films became wilder and more violent, whilst the off-camera renegades were no longer viewed as charismatic. The decade of blockbusting excess was being prepped and a whole slew of fresher, more clean-cut stars were waiting in the wings to pluck the action mantle from him and his trend-setting brethren. Like Tom Horn, Steve McQueen was finding the swing-shift unaccommodating.

    The film, directed with a serenity by William Wiard that contrasts with the ferocity of much of Horn's life, has many problems, but visual beauty is not one of them. Filmed in gorgeous Northern Arizona locations, the scenery and the framing that presents it looks exquisite. But this is no sunburned oater. The autumn and winter during which the story is set provides an unusually brisk feel to the western, and you can really feel the crisp, clear air of the prairies nestling before the snow-capped ridges. Fittingly, the colour palette is drained, muting the image with earthy browns and dirty blacks that, in a way, mimic the fading of a way of life. Barring one or two violently exciting set-pieces during the first act, the style of the film is languid and subdued. It's almost as though the fight has gone out of it, much like the double-crossed Tom Horn, who dreams, from the confines of his cell, of being out in the country again. But this sedate pace actually masks the harshly chopped down narrative that has the first few sequences, in which Tom takes the job and meets an erstwhile schoolteacher played by a radiant Linda Evans, running about as smoothly as a lame horse. In fact, the impression left on the viewer is that what they are seeing is merely the final instalment of a much longer film. I've read the book by Will Henry that this film takes its cue from and, although the screenplay makes a wise decision in sticking to just Horn's grim final days, in doing so it relegates his heroic stature to just briefly touched-upon exposition. Still, one senses that this suited McQueen just fine. He was bowing out to a new breed that he could no longer fight.

    But in the first third he proves that he could still hold his own, though. McQueen the rebel-rouser, the star who lived by his own code of ethics comes courageously to the fore in the terrific scene when, his horse shot dead from beneath him, Horn exacts a tremendously pleasing bullet and burning retribution. His damned, straight-as-an-arrow standards will not be compromised. His world is black and white, although he is forced to work in the shadowy grey hinterlands on the fringes of society. Even at the end, he exudes a cool resignation to the bum-hand that fate has dealt him, his simple lack of understanding in the new-fangled systems set in place to eradicate men like him riding shotgun to the bitter regret he feels at no longer being able to ride the high country. The thing is, he knows the terrible things that he has done and, more importantly, that he hasn't done.

    The film is perhaps typified by the performance of Richard Farnsworth who, whilst eminently personable, is subdued, faltering and ineffectual. Since I was a kid, I've admired this story and the strange legend of Tom Horn, a man whose destiny became that of the frontier he roamed, but I feel the film fails to strike the right chord in its depiction of his legacy. McQueen understands the role implicitly - he has a soul connection to it, in fact - but the problem is that the filmmakers don't. The screenplay informs us of too much when it should be showing us the chunks of Horn's life that made him so great. His fledgling relationship with the schoolteacher is left as hanging in the breeze as he tragically is, and the escape attempt just seems tactless instead of the final desperate act of a man who just wants the freedom of the hills. Still, I like the film a lot despite these misgivings. Anchored by Steve McQueen's realistic performance, the movie has a bittersweet closeness that lessens its often melancholy approach to the subject matter. And it is good to see Slim Pickens crop up again as the poor Sheriff wracked with remorse for a prisoner he knows is innocent, but is powerless to help.

    Well, I said I'd try and reign myself in, but it's a difficult thing to do with a quality set like this. This collection of films has its unmistakeable lows but they are far overshadowed by the quality of its highs. A true one-off, Steve McQueen had many more strings to his bow than gun-slinging Vin and fence-jumping Hilts. His devil-may-care attitude to life translated exceedingly well to the screen, but there was a hunger within him that went well beyond thrill-seeking and womanising. The selection here provides indelible proof of the risks he took professionally and the choices he made to challenge himself. It would have been easy for him to stick to cool-as-they-come, underdog rogues but, in his career, he elected to continually push back his own boundaries. Cop, crook, commando, convict, cowboy or cardsharp - all diverse, all lent a unique and unorthodox approach from a star forever honing his own raw talent with every moment that he performed. All benefiting from Steve McQueen's eternal charisma and softly-spoken charm. Steve McQueen. Definitely the coolest guy in the room.

    Rest In Peace, Steve. You were one of my first, and most enduring, heroes.