Marathon Man (1976)

DIRECTOR: John Schlesinger


Dustin Hoffman, Sir Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, Marthe Keller, William Devane, Fritz Weaver, Richard Bright, Marc Lawrence


"Is it safe?" No one who has viewed John Schlesinger's gritty thriller Marathon Man will soon forget those three simple words, or look at dentists the same way again. The globetrotting plot involves Nazi fugitives, shady government agencies, and diamond fortunes, all tied together in a not-entirely-clear web, but the central character is Thomas "Babe" Levy (Dustin Hoffman), a bright young history student at New York's Columbia University with dreams of being a marathon champion and haunted by his father being driven to suicide by the McCarthy witch hunts of the '50s. Babe's world is about to be shattered by a harrowing series of events stemming from his older brother Doc's (Roy Scheider) involvement in a secret government organization. It's never exactly clear what this "division" is, or what it does, but it seems to have its hands in a few dirty pies. And then there is Babe's Swiss girlfriend Elsa (Marthe Keller), who may or may not be what she seems. And at the center of the intrigue is a former Nazi "dentist" named Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), who's emerging from hiding in Uruguay to collect his diamonds...and he thinks Babe knows something.

Marathon Man survives of the strength of its scenes and performances. The international intrigue involving Doc and Janey (William Devane) is a little hard to follow, and one character's motives remain a little confusing. Things get more straightforward in the film's second half, but at times, especially early on, Marathon Man is unncessarily convoluted. But the individual scenes are almost all well-crafted, and a feeling of tension and danger permeates the film from start to finish. The scenes manage to be suspenseful enough that we're engaged, even when we're not entirely sure exactly what's going on. Then in the second half the plot narrows to focus on Babe's harrowing encounter with Szell, and the pace quickens, the good and bad sides are defined, and the final third or so is particularly compelling. Any number of scenes stand out: an ominous encounter in an opera theater, two assassination attempts against Doc, a chase along a dark city street, the Nazi fugitive venturing tensely into a Jewish neighborhood to get his diamonds, a showdown at a farmhouse, and of course, "is it safe?".

For the most part, Dustin Hoffman, who tends to be at least a little theatrical at the best of times, is solid, although there are moments when his histrionics get a little excessive. We sympathize with Babe, which is important. Roy Scheider is solid as his enigmatic brother, as are Marthe Keller and William Devane, who keep us uncertain about their ambiguous characters. The late Richard Bright, a familiar henchman type (he was the Corleone hitman Al Neri in all three installments of The Godfather) and Marc Lawrence are Szell's cronies. Fritz Weaver has essentially a cameo as Babe's brilliant professor Biesenthal. Best, unsurprisingly, is Sir Laurence Olivier, who brings a smooth, cultivated viciousness to his sinister role, using a calm, cold demeanor and eyes that never seem to smile even when his mouth does, to make Szell a thoroughly menacing villain (Olivier was nominated for an Academy Award). The infamous scene in which he casually uses dentist's tools as torture devices to extract information from a helplessly squirming Babe is the stuff of cinematic legend, and thirty years later, while not particularly graphic, it remains uncomfortable to watch. This features Marathon Man at its strongest.

Director John Schlesinger gives the film a gritty feel which adds to the immediacy and tension. He also effectively practices restraint in the notorious torture scene, letting close-ups of Babe's terrified face and Szell's impassive one speak louder than the violence could have. The film version is very much faithful to its novel origins, although prolific author and screenwriter William Goldman was reportedly not pleased with the way the filmmakers altered his original ending (the film's version, while not radically different, is more satisfying). There are a few interesting other changes or omissions; the book's Doc and Janey have a homosexual relationship which the film glosses over, along with some of Doc's ruthlessness. In addition to the book's Doc being more fleshed-out, the shady international intrigue in which he is embroiled was made somewhat more clear (somewhat, not entirely), and Babe displayed an edgier side. Also, in the book, Szell has a father, not a brother (suggesting Szell was meant to be somewhat younger in the book). But none of these details affect the central storyline, and the plot and most of the individual scenes are brought intact from page to screen, often word for word.

The years have magnified Marathon Man's reputation; no other scene holds the power and intensity of the legendary torture sequence, and the sometimes murky first half keeps it from reaching the very top of the thriller genre, but it generates enough tension and unease for us to be brought along on its harrowing journey until the last shot has been fired and the end credits start to roll.


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