3.5 out of 5 stars

Is it safe? The gnomic question posed by Szell (Laurence Olivier) to Babe (Dustin Hoffman), repeated over and over as the elderly Nazi works on the hapless student with his dental implements, is probably the single most famous thing about Marathon Man, and it encapsulates both the film’s strengths and its fundamental weakness. John Schlesinger’s movie is packed with fine scenes of unease and threat, convincing performances, and interesting ideas, but it never quite hangs together.

The gist of Szell’s question is a mystery to Babe (is what safe?), and it’s equally a mystery to the audience why Szell doesn’t simply spell out what he wants to know. Similarly, Szell’s fear of betrayal is the prime motivator of the plot, but it’s never quite apparent enough; similarly, the repeated references to Babe’s father as a victim of McCarthyism are presumably intended to remind us that tyranny can arise anywhere at any time, that Szell and his fellow Nazis were not one-off alien aberrations, but as the film progresses they fade away into irrelevance. Why were they there at all?

The movie is full of odd holes and loose ends like this—unexpected flaws in a film written by the great William Goldman (and based closely on his novel), and probably deriving from conflicting impulses: Schlesinger was anxious to do a more mainstream crowd-pleaser after the unsuccessful and powerfully anti-Hollywood The Day of the Locust (1975), but he was also trying to create a film that tapped into the appetite for edgy, uncomfortable paranoia. After all, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) had come close to the top of the box office charts the previous year, and Marathon Man’s producer Robert Evans had strong credentials in this kind of movie with The Conversation (1974), Chinatown (1974) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), as well as huge commercial successes like Love Story (1970) and The Godfather (1972).

Marathon Man, then, attempts to be a fast-moving and accessible thriller, complete with exotic overseas locations (Paris, Uruguay) and larger-than-life villains, but at the same time a more moody study in evil, corruption, and the helplessness of the ordinary man. The two don’t mix successfully, and it sometimes has the feeling of being half-finished as a result.

Ideas there are aplenty, but they’re not always thought through; there’s a resonance in the young Jewish man Babe fighting back against a war criminal from the German death camps, for example. (Pauline Kael described the movie as “Death Wish with a lone Jewish boy getting his own back [on] the Nazis”). But it loses some of its potency once you realise that Babe’s Jewishness is irrelevant in the context of the film, and he has plenty of unrelated motivation to hate Szell. The same might go for the interspersions of footage depicting Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, an American runner triumphing over Hitler’s Germany; again it seems symbolically apt… but, on closer examination, the stories and situations of Owens and Babe have little in common.

The root of Babe’s problems may be the US government rather than Szell anyway. The Hoffman character, a graduate student of history (significantly) in New York City, comes into conflict with Olivier’s elderly Nazi through Babe’s brother Doc (Roy Scheider), supposedly an oil company executive but in fact working for a secret US security agency.

Doc and his fellow spooks are allowing Szell to remain at large, and supplying him with diamonds that he’d plundered from victims of the Holocaust, in return for information on other Nazi war criminals; but Szell starts to suspect they are conspiring against him, and that Babe may know something about their plot.

The details of the Doc-Szell connection aren’t made clear in the film, though their haziness seems more of an oversight than the result of a deliberate attempt to create mystery, and nor are Szell’s reasons for keeping the diamonds in New York when he is living in South America. It’s all a terribly contrived way to drag Babe into a situation where he is threatened both by his own duplicitous government—-particularly in the form of Doc’s colleague Janeway (William Devane)—and by a specter of past evils in the form of Szell.

Marathon Man also suffers from the way the self-evidently monstrous Nazi inevitably overshadows the more morally ambiguous Doc and Janeway. It’s difficult to accept that the servants of the US government, however shadowy their agenda might be, are quite as bad as the Auschwitz torturer. The film tries to equate them (Janeway says “I believe in my country”, to which Szell replies “so did we all”), but it’s not persuasive, especially given that despite his double-dealings Doc is a relatively sympathetic character to the end.

So Marathon Man here falls some way short of the best of the 1970s paranoia movies, which work precisely because they assert that badness does not have to come in the form of obvious ogres (and which also tend to emphasise the idea of surveillance, absence from Marathon Man).

Still, if the story and its implications are something of a mess, Schlesinger and Goldman build some fantastic scenes from them. The eight-minute torture section (actually two scenes in close succession) is certainly among the most impactful, not only with the skillful use of the drill’s screeching and the glaring white light to imply Babe’s acute agony, but also thanks to the chilling moments where Szell acts like a normal dentist, washing his hands or coaxing his reluctant “patient” to open his mouth: the banality of evil. The actual depiction of torture was substantially toned down with extensive cuts after audience previews, but it remains horrifying without graphic detail.

Aside from this famous episode, which along with the final Babe-Szell showdown in Central Park dominates most memories of the movie, perhaps the most effective scenes are two depicting Szell on the streets of New York. In the first he seems to be in a German neighbourhood, passing a Bavarian restaurant, the Bremen House, the Berlin Bar… we can feel his past coming to life around him.

In the second, toward the end of the film, that idea is taken further in a scene of magnificently pervasive tension as Szell walks through a Jewish jewellery district, forced to do business with people he despises, and eventually panicking when he is recognised by an old woman. (Only the concentration camp tattoo on the arm of a jeweller, rather clunkily highlighted by Schlesinger, lets this passage down; it would have been obvious to any viewer in 1976 that a big city’s Jewish district was likely to have many Holocaust survivors.)

Other moments, though, show a less sure touch from Schlesinger and Goldman. Early on, an argument between Szell’s brother and a Jewish man, shouting and gesturing as they drive in parallel, is essential to setting the plot’s wheels in motion but can also come across as humorous, surely not the goal. The character of Chen (James Wing Woo), an Oddjob-like assassin, fits poorly into the film’s attempts at realism. Babe’s repeated question to his girlfriend Elsa (Marthe Keller), asking of a house where they seek refuge “is it Szell’s?”, is so clearly a deliberate allusion back to “is it safe?” that the self-conscious cleverness kills the scene.

Olivier is a superb Szell, even if the part (for which he received an Academy Award nomination) doesn’t give him the scope to show off the full range of his talents; he’s grim and terrifying at times, but can also be fastidious and peculiarly child-like. To wit, his delight at discovering just how many diamonds he has in his safe deposit box. These more human characteristics only add to his dreadfulness, and one can be excused wishing that the film was entirely about Szell rather than Babe.

It’s not that Hoffman doesn’t do his Method best when being overwrought is called for (Olivier famously wondered “why doesn’t he just act?”), but he has such little personality beyond being agonised and comes across as perpetually passive, even when he’s taking the initiative (as in his pursuit of Elsa). At almost 40, he’s also a little too old to convince in the part (to be fair, he was close to 30 when he played the fresh-faced title role of Mike Nichols’s The Graduate in 1967, but the disparity shows more here).

Scheider, always a terrific actor and still an underrated one, is outstanding as Babe’s soft-spoken, urbane, wine-buff brother Doc, while Devane’s Janeway—in the novel also explicitly Doc’s lover, although that’s only hinted at in the film—has a wonderfully insincere grin to suit his two-faced character. Among the smaller roles, Fritz Weaver stands out as one of Hoffman’s professors.

Marathon Man was a commercial success, topping the US box office for three weeks, even if critics were quick to spot its weaknesses. Kael was particularly sceptical, arguing that Schlesinger “opts for so much frazzle crosscutting that there’s no suspense. There isn’t the clarity for suspense,” and arguing (probably rightly) that William Friedkin would have served the material better.

Roger Ebert was more positive, acknowledging that “if holes in plots bother you, Marathon Man will be maddening”, but also advising audiences to “forget about the loose ends and concentrate on a series of scenes that hold us so firmly while we’re watching them, that questions don’t enter our minds.”

For Schlesinger, whose filmography to that time had ranged from the wonderfully fanciful take on English kitchen-sink drama Billy Liar (1963) to the New York grittiness of Midnight Cowboy (1969), Marathon Man marked a new direction that led to several movies on related themes like An Englishman Abroad (1984), The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)—in which the Timothy Hutton character has some resemblances to Babe—and The Innocent (1993).

“I hadn’t done a thriller up to that point, and I loved doing it,” he said. “I got very hooked on making suspense pieces after that. It’s a game you play with the audience that’s unlike any other kind of filmmaking.”

In Marathon Man, though, the game with the audience is too often played to strange and confusing rules. The film (which also occupies a small place in cinema history as the first release to use the Steadicam) is frustrating because Schlesinger and Goldman could surely have made something so much better, a movie where the pieces and the ideas fit together smoothly rather than seeming jammed together regardless of how well they match. Still, at its best, it’s an immersive, restless, original thriller, as well as Hollywood’s single greatest contribution to dentophobia!

USA | 1976 | 125 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: John Schlesinger.
writer: William Goldman (based on his novel).
starring: Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, William Devane & Marthe Keller