The deadliest sin a good-guy-vs.-bad-guy movie can commit is to – unintentionally – have us root for the evildoer. That is exactly what director John Schlesinger (Darling; Midnight Cowboy; Sunday, Bloody Sunday) and screenwriter William Goldman (adapting his own novel, reportedly with some help from Robert Towne) manage to do in the thrill-less “thriller” Marathon Man. Adding insult to injury, the villain I came to root for was a horrific Nazi war criminal, while the hero that bored me to tears was a pacifist Jew.
Now, how could anyone manage to tip the scale toward such a monstrous character, especially when we have a Jewish hero fighting him? Well, ask Laurence Olivier, who has a grand old time as Dr. Christian Szell (inspired by the concentration camps’ Angel of Death, Josef Mengele); without any apparent effort, Olivier eviscerates every lesser actor with whom he comes in contact. (Olivier’s bad guys – Richard III, Othello – have usually been much more interesting than his heroes.)
Schlesinger and Goldman should have done a good balancing act so our hero would be a match to the fascinating villain, but neither they nor star Dustin Hoffman succeed in making the peacenik-turned-avenger protagonist – a role similar to Hoffman’s antihero in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs – into anything more intriguing than a one-dimensional movie dud.
Like other 1970s conspiracy films such as The Parallax View and The Odessa File, Marathon Man actually starts out well, with a preposterous 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 that explodes on a Parisian street. From then on, the film goes precipitously downhill.
Someone somewhere forgot to add a brain to most of the characters and a modicum of sense to the intricate plot. Although the filmmakers bravely attempt to make everything so confusing that the viewer won’t notice the absurdity of it all, missing here is the sort of cinematic flair that would have made plot holes the size of continents at least marginally acceptable. (Check out Howard Hawks’ impenetrable – but enjoyable – The Big Sleep, or even Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps or North by Northwest.)
Not helping matters, the generally capable Schlesinger gets lost trying to create both human drama and movie thrills. The end result is that Marathon Man offers precious little of either.
But since the plot must keep on rolling, there are secretive meetings, a one-eyed East Asian villain, a mysterious woman (Marthe Keller, sans any mystery), silly Hitchcockian touches lifted from Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, and people doing stupid things (such as never calling the police when in danger) because it’s a movie.
The murky storyline, by the way, concerns some precious stones hidden in a vault in New York City. Fugitive Nazi and former sadistic dentist Christian Szell (Olivier) escapes from an alternate-reality tropical Uruguay to New York because he wants those gems at any cost. Szell believes that Babe Levy (Hoffman) knows where they are, for Hoffman’s Babe is the brother (apparently of different parents) of Roy Scheider’s double agent, Doc Levy.
The poor Babe, of course, is completely innocent – but regardless of that fact he must suffer for his ignorance. Szell mercilessly drills Babe’s mouth in a sequence that is nearly as harrowing as it is funny.
“Is it safe?” Szell asks Babe time and again. Neither the drilled Babe nor I knew what the hell Szell was talking about, but I loved Olivier’s campy German accent anyway.
In fact, once Olivier enters the scene in the film’s second half, Marathon Man perks up whenever the veteran actor is on screen. “The land of plenty,” 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.” With that same nonchalance, he looks for oil inside Babe’s mouth, kills off people right and left, and gets his comeuppance with the shameless panache of a professional scene-stealer.
Ultimately, it is Laurence Olivier’s presence in Marathon Man that makes this drab motion picture more tolerable than two hours in a dentist’s chair.
An aside: Hoffman says that Olivier’s oft-quoted remark, “Why not try acting? It’s much easier,” came out of concern for Hoffman’s excessive partying while trying to forget his recent divorce and other personal issues. It was not a put-down of his Method acting style.
Marathon Man (1976)
Director: John Schlesinger.
Screenplay: William Goldman.
From his novel.
Cast: Dustin Hoffman. Laurence Olivier. Roy Scheider. William Devane. Marthe Keller. Fritz Weaver. Richard Bright. Marc Lawrence.