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If nothing else, Marathon Man is relevant as British director John Schlesinger’s last important film. He had been a major force in English cinema in the '60s with Darling, Far From The Madding Crowd, and Sunday Bloody Sunday. In America he made one of the great "Los Angeles movies," Day Of The Locust, and one of the great "New York Movies," Midnight Cowboy (for which he won an Oscar). After Marathon Man his next dozen or so films before his death in 2003 would be completely unmemorable (with the exception of Sean Penn’s stellar performance in The Falcon and The Snowman), sadly ending such a promising career with the horrid Madonna vehicle, The Next Best Thing.
Based on a massive bestseller by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid), Marathon Man is interesting because Schlesinger is able to use the docu-street style he perfected with Midnight Cowboy and his smart, gentle approach to grown-up literature to turn out a really cool, tough, and intelligent thriller. It’s a film with a number of twists, though they don’t always add-up, on the whole it's a taut, gripping, exciting film.
Dustin Hoffman plays Babe, a graduate student with an obsession for running and history, especially when it concerns his blacklisted, deceased father. Those marathon running skills will come in handy for him later in the film. Unbeknownst to him, his smooth brother Doc (Roy Scheider) is a government black bag specialist who is involved with an old Nazi, Szell (Laurence Olivier), a concentration camp dentist who hoarded the gold from his victim’s teeth. Now he is in New York to get retrieve the gold from a bank safe deposit box. Szell, worried that he is going to be double crossed and robbed by Doc, kills him and then must figure out what Doc’s brother knows. This leads to one of the most famous torture scenes of all time with Olivier as the evil Nazi drilling holes in Hoffman’s teeth, asking him, “Is it safe?”
There is another layer, though not fully explored, that lends a sense of "survivor" to Hoffman's character. Hoffman and Scheider are both haunted by their father's suicide in different ways. Scheider breaks from the family's socialist values and gets involved with big business, embracing wealth and greed. Hoffman continues to ponder what those values cost his father and his family. It also creates an extra conflict between Hoffman and Olivier's Nazi. Hoffman's character understands history, maybe too well.
Hoffman and Olivier, two of the great actors of their generations, came from two very different schools of acting. In a now legendary exchange, as Hoffman used his method acting techniques to work himself into his character's exhaustion, jumping around and what not, Olivier famously asked him, “Why don’t you just try acting?” Olivier, of course, had a giant career peeking in the 1940s with Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and Hamlet, which he also directed brilliantly. In the '70s he had a mini-comeback, playing opposite Michael Caine in Sleuth and then with Marathon Man (scoring Oscar nominations for both films). However any good will would be lost a few years later with a slew of laughably ham-fisted histrionic performances, including the oy vey performance as Cantor Rabinovitch opposite Neil Diamond in the disappointing remake of The Jazz Singer and the scenery-chewing bizarre work of General MacArthur in the terrible Inchon.
But with Marathon Man, Hoffman and Olivier are aided by a perfect cast. For the always-reliable Scheider, this was part of a great run of roles in the '70s, beginning with The French Connection and ending with the underrated Sorcerer. Coming off the giant hit Jaws, his character’s early demise must have been a shocker for audiences in ‘76. As Scheider’s oily criminal-cop partner, the toothy actor William Devane is perfectly cast - he double crosses Hoffman’s Babe over and over. After years of acting in the television trenches Devane broke through playing JFK in the TV movie The Missiles Of October. This led to Marathon Man and the crazy Vietnam vet/cult flick Rolling Thunder. Unfortunately he continued to work with Schlesinger in a string of turkeys that lead him back to working on TV. As Hoffman’s sneaky German girlfriend, this was Swedish actress Marthe Keller’s first American film. She would continue to play the Euro-heavy in more political thrillers - Black Sunday, The Formula, and The Amateur. But playing Al Pacino’s love interest in the little-seen, dismal Bobby Deerfield would inspire her to head back to Europe where she would be a reliable actress for years. Rounding out the fine supporting cast, Fritz Weaver (Demon Seed) pops up as Hoffman’s professor.
Legendary screenwriter Robert Towne is said to have done some touch-ups on the script, but as good as it is, it’s not as good as his classy, complicated script for Chinatown. Nor is it quite in the league of Goldman’s other script that year, All The President’s Men. Nor is it Schlesinger or Hoffman’s best film. But that being said it’s an exciting thriller. It’s a complicated film, sometimes too complicated, but like The Big Sleep thirty-something years earlier, that’s part of the fun - trying to figure out what makes sense in the mystery, if anything. Marathon Man is in the tradition of commercial '70s thrillers - a long list including Black Sunday, Klute, The Parallax View, Night Moves, Three Days Of the Condor, The Conversation, and The Day Of The Jackal - all gritty thrillers that require thought. It may be over the top to say "they don’t make ‘em like that anymore," but they don’t. Marathon Man is a reminder of the days when a suspense film was character driven and not condescending to its audience.
Marathon Man was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (Laurence Olivier).