Marathon Man (1976)    2 Stars

“A thriller.”

Marathon Man (1976)
Marathon Man (1976)

Director: John Schlesinger

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider

Synopsis: A graduate history student is unwittingly caught in the middle of an international conspiracy involving stolen diamonds, an exiled Nazi war criminal, and a rogue government agent.

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It’s the stories of ordinary, unremarkable people whose mundane worlds are unaccountably turned upside down that always strike a chord. These stories pierce that smug bubble of complacency with which we surround ourselves, that spurious certainty that our world is in order, our barriers unbreachable. While we watch some poor nobody like Babe Levy in John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man suffering the terror of Nazi torture in 1970s New York we might feel a tiny thread of unease worm its way into some remote part of our mind. Babe is a nobody, friendless and anonymous, whose pre-occupation with running serves as a metaphor for the distance he has placed between himself and a troubled past in which his alcoholic father committed suicide. He’s taunted by the local hoods, who call him the creep, and sits apart from others in his class at the university at which he is a student.

Babe is played by Dustin Hoffman (Midnight Cowboy), a small man who makes an unlikely movie star. Al Pacino was another casting consideration, apparently, but his character is too large for the part. Hoffman has the ability to blend in with his surroundings, to appear ordinary. Babe has a brother, Doc (Roy Scheider – Jaws, All That Jazz) whom he believes is a high-powered businessman. But Doc is the target of a mysterious Oriental assassin against whom he is more than capable of defending himself, and has a rendezvous with a shady antiques dealer whom he finds sitting in a box at the opera with his throat cut. Meanwhile, the death of an elderly German in a road rage incident with a Jewish motorist in New York triggers the journey to America of Szell (Laurence Olivier – Wuthering Heights, 21 Days Together), a wanted Nazi war criminal who has been hiding out in a Uruguayan jungle so secret that even the country itself doesn’t know of its existence.

How does Babe become involved not only with these apparently unconnected events but with a sensuous Swiss beauty (Marthe Keller – Funeral in Berlin) and with Janeway (William Devane – The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar), an agent for a shadowy Government organisation known as The Division? Well… erm… it’s a little bit difficult to say, really, because Marathon Man’s plot is so convoluted that, like Babe, we’re never 100% certain about what is going on and who to trust. Despite that, after a disjointed start, the movie proves to be the kind of thriller which grabs your attention in the same way that a hungry Rottweiler would grab your throat between its jaws. It’s brutally compelling in a way that seems unique to dark thrillers made in the 1970s, serving up memorable set pieces while largely uncaring of plot holes or character inconsistencies.

It’s impossible to discuss the movie without touching upon the torture scene in which the former dentist Szell performs painful surgery on Babe’s teeth. He wants to find out if it’s safe for him to recover diamonds from a bank vault in the heart of the Jewish part of New York and he repeatedly asks the ignorant Babe “Is it safe?” as he prepares his instruments of torture. The tension is almost unbearable, and it’s a testament to the scene’s power that our collective memory recalls it as being considerably more graphic than it actually is. In fact, we probably remember the entire movie being better than it actually is because of scenes like this, forgetting that many aspects of the plot don’t make a lot of sense and the final confrontation between Szell and Babe is something of an anti-climax.

(Reviewed 23rd March 2015)

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