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Marathon Man (1976)
Added 2001-12-21
by Ronald Bruce Meyer



Marathon Man

The McCarthy section is
central to your dissertation, yes?

(pause) Yes.

Very worrisome, Levy.
You wish to write about a
period in our history that
destroyed your father. But
we're talking about an
objective doctoral thesis. It
mustn't be turned into a
hysterical crusade. That's not
the way to clear him.

I don't have to worry about
clearing him because he was
innocent. (pause) Don't you
think he was innocent,

No. I think he was
guilty. I think he was guilty of
being arrogant and brilliant
and of being na´ve. He
was guilty of not being able to
cope with the humiliation of
being dismissed. But, of the
charges, I know he was
innocent. And, if it matters,
Levy, I wept the day he

It was a bad day for all
of us, sir.

Olivier and Hoffman

Is it safe?

The memorable dental torture
scene was shortened after preview audiences actually became ill. Sometimes acting can be too real!

Roy Scheider

Roy Scheider played the skilled international agent/courier for The Division. To his enemies he was "Scylla," the rock; to his brother, Babe, he was "Doc."

Is it safe?

You might think it safe on a college campus for a graduate student of history who enjoys perpetual training for a marathon he will eventually run for his life. But Babe (Dustin Hoffman), the Marathon Man, is a student at Columbia in New York, under his father's student, Prof. Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver), and he lives in an armpit of an apartment in a Latino gang neighborhood and goes outside only to study and to run.

But seemingly unrelated events occur in the world outside Babe's ivory tower that will soon affect him. Somewhere in Manhattan a elderly German man plows his Mercedes into an oil tanker and dies in the fire. Somewhere in Paris a courier named Scylla (Roy Scheider) makes a delivery, escapes a bomb blast, finds his contacts murdered, and survives a garroting with a badly damaged hand. Somewhere in the jungles of Uruguay, an ex-Nazi named Christian Szell (Sir Laurence Olivier), the White Angel (der weise Engel), escapes from house arrest and flies to the US. Babe meets a girl named Elsa Opal (Marthe Keller), begins to date her seriously, and later is mugged with her in Central Park... by two men in suits, Karl and Ehrhard (Richard Bright and Marc Lawrence). Babe writes to tell his brother, Doc, that he is so angry and frustrated he could... maybe... kill.

Doc shows up and we find that he is Scylla. But Scylla/Doc has different demons:

What's this? More bullshit for your thesis?

There are some interviews about Dad. I'd like you to read it.

Not interested. You're never gonna face it, are you? The old man is dead. He was a drunk. He killed himself.

Yeah, Doc, but he didn't start to drink until after the hearings. It's right here in the interview...

Where were those people when he needed them?

They were afraid like everybody else.

You think he wanted you to be throwing your life away on this shit? It's over! Forget it!

Maybe for you. What do you want me to do? Become a corporate hustler like you?

No. My life's thrown away, anyway.

What do you mean?

I'm supposed to be the best in my business, right? I'm the best because people think I'm the best. I'm past it. And I know it. And sooner or later it's gonna become common knowledge.

Boy, something's gotten you.

Babe... I bet you still got that goddamn gun. Why do you keep it?

I don't know.

For a liberal pacifist you've got some sense of vengeance.
Doc invites Babe and his girlfriend out to lunch, then exposes Elsa in a lie. That night he meets with Szell. And the last time Babe sees his brother alive is after he makes his way back to the apartment, mortally wounded by Szell, and dies on his floor. Peter Janeway (William Devane) shows up and, when he admits that he worked with Babe's brother, and that Scylla/Doc was not the man Babe thought he was, things really start to get interesting!

Is it safe?

Not if you get between a Nazi and his fortune in diamonds, stolen from Auschwitz Jews during World War II. John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) directed this film because he always wanted to direct a thriller. The deft, suspenseful script, by novelist William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969), makes this film both a study in character and a violent thrill ride, with twists and double-crosses coming fast and furious in the second hour. But the acting is brilliant. In one of Olivier's last roles, if not his best (he died in 1986), his portrayal of the German war criminal panicked over the prospect of being robbed of his stolen fortune in diamonds, is chillingly realistic. (Szell is modeled on Doctor Josef Mengele, the sadist of Auschwitz, who was hiding out in South America when Marathon Man was released.) His "cutter" weapon is a slash of genius, too, but the dental torture scene probably had more than one dentist apologizing to his patients!

Dustin Hoffman continues his streak of excellent 1970s roles (Little Big Man,1970, Straw Dogs, 1971, Papillon, 1973, Lenny 1974, All the President's Men, 1976, plus Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979 - for which he won his first of two Best Actor Oscars). He transforms believably from na´ve student of history to a fighter against one of its villains. In her first English-speaking role in a US film, Swiss-born Marthe Keller brings a true international flavor to this spy thriller. Roy Scheider came to my attention in The French Connection (1971) and Jaws (1975) and he is a powerful presence in this film. William Devane, whose role is not fully developed in the script, breaks out of his JFK typecasting (TV's Missiles of October, 1974) and becomes truly his own character actor in this film.

Is it safe? To read the book? I try not to read the book from which a film is made, but I made an exception in this case, reading Goldman's novel after seeing the film. The characters are better developed because the canvas is not limited to 125 minutes, but the film, as scripted by the novelist, does justice to the core of the story. I would have liked to see more of the Scylla/Doc character, especially in the hands of Roy Scheider, but that would have shifted the focus from Babe unnecessarily. To say that I noticed the score, by Michael Small, is not to say that it was distracting. I don't usually notice a film's score, it is true, but this one intensified the feelings of evil and dread that are portrayed in the script and illustrated in Conrad Hall's muted cinematography.

I don't usually comment on the cinematography, either. Like the score, if it's good, it doesn't draw attention to itself. Of course, the main action plays out in New York City. There was one brief shot of the World Trade Center towers... as viewed from a commercial jet approaching Manhattan! Another shot actually made me smile. The establishing shot before Scylla's nighttime meeting with Szell showed an after-hours office looking quaint to modern eyes: you see the covered machines on each empty desk. They are not computers but typewriters!

Is it safe? To enjoy Marathon Man, in spite of the violence? I don't usually approve of revenge dramas or vigilantism, but taken on its own terms, and with a main character haunted by the ghost of his disgraced father (played quite well in flashback by Allen Joseph), this was well crafted entertainment that runs without getting winded, even after 25 years.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.

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