Director: John Schlesinger
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider
Spoilers Within: Yes
Film 18 – #51 in ‘The Hard Drive Randomiser’
The mere mention of 1970s New York conjures iconic images of grubby brownstones, seedy corruption, and a disenchanted populace, and John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man has this distinct atmosphere down to a perfectly formed T. The unadorned dustiness of the grimy litter-strewn streets is matched by the figurative greyness of the post-Watergate political field, bringing this cloak and dagger spy thriller to a nail-biting conclusion, along the way loaded with a subtle surprises and distressing imagery: both symbolic and physical.
Schlesinger’s adaptation of William Goldman’s novel of the same name follows Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman), the titular ‘marathon man’, as he makes laps around Central Park in between studying for his history PhD and wooing his Swiss companion Elsa (Marthe Keller). Running concurrently with Babe’s story is Babe’s brother “Doc” (Roy Scheider): an affluent,well-traveled oil company executive whose mysterious connections to Nazi war criminals and diamond smugglers embroils Babe in a chase that becomes far larger than themselves.
Hoffman, Scheider and Laurence Olivier (playing Dr. Christian Szell, a Nazi physician with evident parallels to SS officer and physician Josef Mengele) all shine in their respective roles; at turns naive, inscrutable and menacing, and it’s the strength of Goldman’s screenplay that these characters are constantly pitted together in genuine scenes of varying intensity, be it Babe and Doc fighting over the honesty of Elsa’s desire for American citizenship; Doc and Szell’s secretive past coming to blows, or Babe and Szell’s brutal moment of endodontistry.
These notorious torture scenes are so unflinching and so mean-spirited, yet entirely necessary to heighten the fearful torment that Babe feels at the hands of Szell and his accomplices. The violence depicted hints at a wider purpose in how to integrate horrific and realistic violence into a narrative with significance and necessity: here, in order to make Babe divulge information which he may or may not have known, Szell drills into his teeth in what is one of the most toe-curlingly tense minutes of off-screen violence I’ve seen in quite some time. It needn’t be outwardly gruesome, nor visibly hematic to be as frightening as it was, and this was helped hugely by Olivier’s interrogative, cryptic chanting (“Is it safe?”) and Hoffman’s valid frustration and panic.
Certainly, if there’s an issue it’s that there needed to be more closure to Babe’s story. As it is it felt too abrupt and throws up far too many questions of Babe’s post-face-off activities besides his disposing of a handgun and then sprinting away. The finality of it feels a little too “what next?” but rather than deliver a level of ambiguity, it resolves in a disappointingly definitive way. For the most part, though, Marathon Man is a hugely entertaining and agile piece of ’70s cinema; with iconic acting, unforgettable shocks, and a gripping, serpentine story in the vein of the great Alan J. Pakula, all making for an undeniable classic.