- Marathon Man movie (1976) review: Delivering one of the most captivating performances of his nearly six-decade cinema career, Laurence Olivier – as a dastardly but droll Nazi fugitive – is the one reason to check out director John Schlesinger and screenwriter/author William Goldman’s preposterous political thriller featuring an otherwise ineffectual cast, contradictory social messaging, and plot holes galore.
Marathon Man movie review: Laurence Olivier creates one of cinema’s most fascinating villains in otherwise drab thriller
The deadliest sin a good guy vs. bad guy movie can commit is to – unintentionally – have viewers root for the evildoer. That’s exactly what Academy Award-winning director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) and then soon-to-be two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969; All the President’s Men, 1976) accomplish in their preposterous 1976 thrill-less thriller Marathon Man, the commercially successful big-screen version of Goldman’s 1974 bestselling novel.
Adding insult to injury, Schlesinger and Goldman’s bewitching villain is a fugitive Nazi war criminal out to do away with their nominal hero, who just happens to be a pacifist Jewish New Yorker.
Now, how could the filmmakers have managed to tip the scale of their Marathon Man movie adaptation toward such a heinous character?
Well, ask Laurence Olivier (Best Actor Oscar winner for Hamlet, 1948), who, all but unrecognizable under some subtly applied facial camouflage, has a grand time as Dr. Christian Szell, inspired by the concentration camps’ Angel of Death, Josef Mengele (who would die at age 67 in São Paulo State in 1979).
Without any apparent effort, Olivier, who would eventually receive a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, eviscerates every lesser actor he comes in contact with, including leading man Dustin Hoffman.
That should come as no surprise. After all, Olivier’s bad guys – Richard III, Othello, Spartacus’ Crassus – have generally been far more compelling than his heroes. Case in point: Compare Dr. Szell to Olivier’s Nazi pursuer Ezra Lieberman in Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Boys from Brazil (1978). Best Actor Oscar nomination (his tenth overall) or no, the anti-Nazi hunter pales next to the Nazi monster.
Of course, Schlesinger and Goldman might have opted for a character balancing act so their Marathon Man movie hero would be a match to their villain, but neither they nor Hoffman succeed in turning their pacifist-turned-avenger protagonist – a role similar to Hoffman’s antihero in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs – into anything more intriguing than a one-dimensional Hollywood dud.
Senseless plot for thrill-less thriller
Like other 1970s conspiracy films – e.g., Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View, Ronald Neame’s The Odessa File – Marathon Man actually starts out well, with an absurd but well-edited car chase through the streets of New York City, a furtive encounter at an antique shop in Paris, and a bomb-laden baby carriage exploding on a Parisian street. From then on, the movie goes precipitously downhill.
Schlesinger and Goldman are largely to blame, having chosen not to bother with providing even an iota of coherence to the convoluted storyline or a functioning brain to most of their characters. Although director and adapter cunningly attempt to make everything so confusing that the viewer won’t notice the idiocy of it all, missing from Marathon Man is the sort of cinematic flair – check out Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and North by Northwest – that might have made (at least marginally) acceptable plot holes larger than most solar systems.
Not helping matters, the often capable John Schlesinger – besides Midnight Cowboy, his credits include Billy Liar, Darling, Sunday Bloody Sunday, and Madame Sousatzka – can’t find his way while trying to create both human drama and big-screen thrills. As a result, Marathon Man offers precious little of either.
But since the narrative must keep on moving no matter where or to what purpose, Marathon Man keeps limping along from plot point to plot point. There are secretive meetings, a one-eyed East Asian villain, a potentially fatal femme (miscast Swiss import Marthe Keller), silly Hitchcockian touches lifted from Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, and people doing stupid things like never calling for help when in danger.
‘Is it safe?’
Not that it’s of any consequence, but the basic Marathon Man movie storyline revolves around stolen diamonds hidden in a New York City bank safety deposit box belonging to the brother of Dr. Christian Szell. Following his sibling’s death, Dr. Szell, eager to get a hold of the gems, escapes from an alternate-reality (as in, tropical) Uruguay to New York, where he murders double agent Doc Levy (Roy Scheider).
Unable to locate the diamonds, Szell believes that Doc’s brother, Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman), a peace-loving history post-graduate student and dedicated jogger, is the solution to his problem.
Babe, however, has no idea where the diamonds are. Dr. Szell, for his part, remains unconvinced. Playing dentist, the Nazi mercilessly tortures his Jewish victim in a sequence that is nearly as harrowing as it is (albeit unintentionally) humorous.
“Is it safe?” the doctor asks. Babe doesn’t know what he’s talking about – and neither will viewers – but Olivier’s campy German accent is so entrancing that the words coming out of his mouth are all but irrelevant.
Indeed, once Laurence Olivier enters the scene in its second half, Marathon Man perks up whenever he’s on screen.
“The land of plenty,” Dr. Szell says with utter disdain upon his arrival in chaotic, strike-plagued New York City. “They were always so confident God was on their side. Now I think they’re not so sure.”
He then proceeds to bump people off, look for oil inside Babe’s mouth, and get his comeuppance with the shameless panache of a professional scene-stealer.
In all, Olivier’s presence is the one thing that makes Marathon Man more tolerable than two hours in a dentist’s chair.
Marathon Man (1976)
Director: John Schlesinger.
Screenplay: William Goldman. (An uncredited Robert Towne also worked on the script.)
From his 1974 novel.
Cast: Dustin Hoffman. Laurence Olivier. Marthe Keller. Roy Scheider. William Devane. Fritz Weaver. Richard Bright. Marc Lawrence. Allen Joseph. Jacques Marin. Madge Kennedy.
Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall. Film Editing: Jim Clark. Music: Michael Small. Production Design: Richard Macdonald. Producers: Robert Evans & Sidney Beckerman.
“Marathon Man Movie (1976) Review” notes
Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner
 Even though Laurence Olivier delivers one of his greatest cinema performances in the 1976 Marathon Man movie adaptation, that year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner turned out to be Jason Robards for his portrayal of Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men.
Gay double agents
Something else worth noting is that Doc had his sexual orientation muted in John Schlesinger and William Goldman’s Marathon Man movie version. In the novel, Doc and fellow double agent Peter Janeway (William Devane in the film) are lovers.
That was a curious decision, considering that Schlesinger, who was gay in real life, had previously directed Midnight Cowboy and Sunday Bloody Sunday, both of which feature “explicit” gay characters that are crucial to the narrative.
Mystery ‘jogger in Central Park’
 April 2021 update: As per online sources, future Hair and Prince of the City actor Treat Williams has an uncredited bit part in the Marathon Man movie. However, in a February 2019 tweet* Williams affirmed, “[…] I am not in Marathon Man. I am not the ‘jogger in Central Park.’”
So you won’t be able to find Treat Williams in Marathon Man, but see if you can spot silent era star Madge Kennedy (Baby Mine, Our Little Wife) in a walk-on.
“I was introduced to her by George Cukor,” John Schlesinger recalled in a 1994 interview. “I loved Madge Kennedy, so I thought I had to cast her.” Kennedy can also be seen in Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust, a flop released the year before Marathon Man.
* Williams’ tweet was a reply to a Bebe Neuwirth tweet explaining that, notwithstanding her name appearing on an online credit list for Robert Greenwald’s Xanadu, she does not have a bit part in the 1980 musical.
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Marathon Man movie cast and crew information via the AFI Catalog website and other sources.
Marthe Keller, Dustin Hoffman, and Laurence Olivier Marathon Man movie images: Paramount Pictures.
“Marathon Man Movie (1976) Review: Masterfully Villainous Olivier in Preposterous Political Thriller” last updated in April 2021.