Marathon Man

Marathon Man
Director: John Schlesinger
Screenplay: William Goldman (based on his novel)
Stars: Dustin Hoffman (Babe Levy), Laurence Olivier (Christian Szell), Roy Scheider (Doc Levy), William Devane (Janeway), Marthe Keller (Elsa), Fritz Weaver (Prof. Biesenthal)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1976
Country: USA
Marathon Man DVD Cover

Considering the impressive list of actors and filmmakers involved in making Marathon Man, it's a wonder that it didn't turn out to be a better movie. It was produced by Robert Evans, the former Paramount studio chief who had overseen such cinematic milestones as the first two installments of The Godfather (1972, 1974) before launching out as an independent producer with Chinatown (1974). It was directed by John Schlesinger, who had won a director's Oscar in 1969 for Midnight Cowboy. It was written by William Goldman, who had won a screenplay Oscar that same year for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (it was also given a late, uncredited rewrite by Oscar-winning Chinatown scribe Robert Towne). And, it featured an impressive international cast including Dustin Hoffman, who was near the height of his popularity after three Oscar-nominated performances in The Graduate (1967), Midnight Cowboy, and Lenny (1974), Laurence Olivier, the great veteran of stage and screen who had long since reached legendary status, and Roy Scheider, just off the blockbuster Jaws (1975). Unfortunately, all that talent both behind and in front of the camera didn't come together the way it should, and the result is an interesting, but deeply flawed and often bizarre thriller.

Hoffman stars Babe Levy, a Jewish graduate student of history at Columbia University who becomes embroiled in international espionage involving his brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), a CIA operative who works under the cover of being a successful oil businessman. Babe is haunted by the fact that his father, a brilliant historian, was driven to alcoholism and eventual suicide by shady accusations during the height of the McCarthy era. Babe is so tormented that he keeps the gun his father used to kill himself in his desk drawer and occupies himself by studying the use of tyranny in modern government.

The thrust of the plot involves a notorious Nazi war criminal, Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), who became rich by stealing gold and diamonds from his Jewish victims. Szell has recently come to the United States after hiding out in South America in order to retrieve his riches, but he is deeply paranoid that someone will rob him when he takes them out of the safe deposit box where his brother had hidden them after being snuck out of Germany before the end of the war. For reasons that are never made entirely clear, Doc is involved in Szell's affairs, as is his associate, Janeway (William Devane), whose motives and intentions are equally muddled. Also cast into the mix is Elsa (Marthe Keller), a beautiful graduate student from Switzerland (or so she says) with whom Babe becomes romantically involved.

Apparently, the international plot was much more coherent and precise in William Goldman's source novel, and maybe the problem with Marathon Man is that it simply didn't translate well to screen. There are too many characters with too many facades and competing motivations for the filmmakers to keep straight, much less the audience. The only thing that does come through clearly is that Babe spends most of the movie being hunted, humiliated, tortured, and beaten before finally managing to assert his masculine self-righteousness, meted out with his father's suicide gun, no less, in what is at best a strained Freudian detail.

It is essentially the same thing Hoffman did in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), but that film worked because it was stripped down to its bare essentials, while Marathon Man is clumsily enshrouded with complex intrigue and meandering subplots. It also denies Babe ultimate retribution in the end, choosing instead to alter Goldman's original ending by having Szell cause his own death, thus freeing Babe of any responsibility while still giving the arch-villain his just desserts. You can't help but feel, though, that it's something of a cop-out, especially since Babe killing Szell seems to be what the whole movie had been building toward.

This is not to say that Marathon Man does not have its effective moments. An early scene in which an Asian assassin attempts to kill Doc in a lavish Paris hotel room is a tense, bloody sequence that brings you to the edge of your seat. Ditto for the scenes in which Szell, who was a dentist in addition to running a Nazi experimentation camp, tortures Babe with dental instruments in order to extract information that Babe doesn't have. It is Babe's helplessness in not even having the option of divulging information to avoid the pain that gives these scenes their stomach-turning quality, and Hoffman plays these scenes just right, suggesting barely concealed panic beneath a veneer of forced rationality as Olivier's sadistic Nazi bears down on him.

Because it deals so directly with questions of war criminals and the ever-haunting presence of the Nazi reign of terror in the lives of surviving Jews (when the film was released, it had only been 30 years since the liberation), Marathon Man has a somewhat unnerving undercurrent that would have been better served had the filmmakers not milked it so much for jittery thrills. It is testament to the free range of American cinema in the 1970s that large-budget commercial thrillers like this one were willing to deal with such topics, but it makes one wish that Goldman and Schlesinger had found a way to make the work more provocative.

Marathon Man DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioDolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesEnglish (5.1, 1.0), French (1.0)
SupplementsThe Magic of Hollywood, The Magic of People 1976 making-of featurette
Going the Distance: Remembering Marathon Man retrospective documentary
Rehearsal footage
Original theatrical trailer
Distributor Paramount Pictures

Paramount has done another nice job with this transfer, presenting Marathon Man in a clean, crisp anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer. The film's visual style is fairly muted, with the drab colors of New York in the fall dominating the screen. The transfer remains faithful to this look, reproducing good detail and solid color saturation without trying to turn up the intensity. Darker scenes tend to betray some grain, especially a scene in which Babe and Elsa are attacked and robbed in Central Park. Overall, though, this is a solid transfer of a 25-year-old movie.

The disc includes both a restored monaural soundtrack and a newly mixed Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack. The 5.1 track is quite good considering the limitations of the source. The music is given more depth and range, and certain sound effects are successfully expanded into the multiple channels, most notably Szell's sinister dental drill that fills the speakers ominously as he approaches the camera in the movie's most terrifying point-of-view shot.

Two documentaries are included in the supplemental portion of the disc. The first is an original 1976 making-of featurette that runs about 21 minutes in length. Somewhat scratchy and faded, this featurette is narrated by producer Robert Evans at his self-absorbed best. Most of the featurette focuses on the actors, especially the contrast between Olivier's old-school approach of sticking precisely to the script as written and Hoffman's looser, improvisational style, and it includes several interview clips with Hoffman and Marthe Keller, as well as footage shot during production and during Laurence Olivier's farewell party. Mostly, though, this is Evans tribute to himself, and it is done in the style that only a studio chief turned powerful independent producer could achieve.

The second documentary is a 30-minute retrospective titled Going the Distance: Remembering Marathon Man. Featuring new interviews with Evans, Hoffman, Keller, Roy Schieder, and screenwriter/novelist William Goldman (director John Schlesinger is notably absent), it is a nice look back at the film and its place in 1970s cinema, although it often seems as though everyone involved is vying for who has the best "Laurence Olivier story" to tell.

In addition to the original theatrical trailer, presented in anamorphic widescreen, the disc also features the rare treat of some 18 minutes of rehearsal footage shot by Schlesinger prior to production. The rehearsal footage is fascinating because it offers insight into how the actors worked through their roles and also because the footage includes lines of dialogue and entire sequences that never made it into the final cut of the film (much of it was eliminated during rehearsals).

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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