If Marathon Man is more well known than most other paranoid thrillers of the seventies, it's because of that torture sequence, one which had thousands of viewers rushing from the cinema clutching their mouths in shock. Excellent as that scene is, it's tended to overshadow the rest of the film - and that's a shame because this is a very well made, expertly acted thriller which creates a sense of genuine terror out of a plot which doesn't really make a great deal of sense.
Dustin Hoffman, looking decidedly aged for the role, plays Babe Levy, a twentysomething history student and obsessive athlete who becomes unwittingly involved in a conspiracy involving his brother, a shadowy US government agency, a Nazi war criminal and a mysterious but beautiful German woman. When his brother, Doc (Scheider), returns to America after a busy time in Paris where several attempts have been made on his life, Babe begins to wonder whether his sibling really is the straightforward businessman he claims to be. His feelings of unease grow when his brother turns up on his doorstep with a fatal knife wound and when, subsequently, the death brings Janeway (Devane), a government agent, to his apartment to explain that Doc was, in fact, a government operative named Scylla. Babe's worst fears are confirmed when two heavies break into his apartment, kidnap him and take him to a warehouse where a particularly nasty German - war criminal Szell (Olivier) - tortures him with the sort of dentistry that is normally only available in the NHS, while repeating the question "Is it safe ?" As events begin to pile up, Babe realises that he's in the middle of a monstrous chain of events which he needs to control if he is to survive.
Much of the fun of Marathon Man comes from unravelling the various plot strands so I will not say too much more about the story apart from suggesting that this is a rare case when the needless convolutions of the plot add to the enjoyment of the film rather than detracting from it. You can spend lots of time worrying about the exact nature of Janeway's scheme to lure Szell into the open, why a brilliant operative such as Scylla is so dopey as to fall for several of the oldest tricks in the espionage book, why his brother visits the bank at the beginning of the film or just why that bomb is in the baby carriage, but it's these sorts of complications which make Marathon Man so outrageously entertaining. It doesn't add up in the end (nor did the book) but it's made with such an excess of elegant style that it's impossible not to be swept away by the sheer brio of the whole enterprise. Right from the beginning, where black and white footage of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics fades into Hoffman running around Central Park, making the sort of noises only normally found in Dinosaur flicks, you just have to sit back, relax, and let the film pull you in. I don't think John Schlesinger's direction has ever again been as assured as this and every plot twist makes you smile with pleasure. He keeps the story moving along at a fast clip, makes the most of his international locations and does everything that we could wish for with his extraordinary cast. He also has the knack of including violence which really makes you squirm - not only in the dentistry sequence, but in the incidentals like a hand being split by a cheese wire - without being gratuitous. I think this is a superior piece of direction to the over-acclaimed Midnight Cowboy in just about every respect, not least because there is none of the grotesque sentimentality of that film or the absurd straining for significance. There's no shame in enjoying the luxurious silliness of Marathon Man and its the sort of filmmaking which requires incredible skill if it is to work. Schlesinger is helped immensely by William Goldman's witty, carefully constructed screenplay, which manages to satisfy the action requirements of a Hollywood thriller while creating, with broad strokes, some interesting and convincing characters. The plot isn't particularly original, and some of the individual scenes are time honoured cliches of the espionage story, but the film moves fast enough to work without seeming overly-familiar.
It helps enormously that the cast is everything it should be. Dustin Hoffman is slightly mannered and remote as Babe but that suits a character who is meant to be clever but have no common sense. He seems a little uneasy in his earlier scenes, especially when he makes a pretty dismal attempt at chatting up Elsa (Keller), but he settles down in the torture scenes when he looks convincingly terrified. That might have something to do with Hoffman's own insecurity about appearing with Olivier - a famous story has him rehearsing Olivier to the point of exhaustion in order to assert himself - but it works perfectly in the context of the film. Roy Scheider is ideal as the deliberately anonymous Doc - he's not the most charismatic actor so he's perfect for this slightly off-putting, self-important role - and William Devane is deviousness incarnate as the deeply untrustworthy Janeway. Marthe Keller is gorgeous as Elsa, although the part isn't fully thought-out by Goldman and she doesn't have enough to do. Interestingly, she was unable to speak much English at the time and learnt her lines phonetically, but this isn't evident in the finished product. Fritz Weaver makes a nicely pompous impression in his one-scene role as Babe's professor, although his part is there solely to drag in the McCarthy hearings in order to give babe some rather spurious and not particularly relevant backstory.
But the movie belongs to Laurence Olivier. Having spent the previous three years saying goodbye to the theatre (brilliantly, in Trevor Griffith's "The Party") and finding himself virtually unemployable due to insurance problems, he returned to the screen as the monstrous Szell, the "White Angel" of Auschwitz, and he walks off with the entire film. It's not so much what he does - though God knows that's bad enough - it's the way he does it. Watch the first torture sequence and marvel at the exquisite care and patience he shows in handling the dentistry tools and the fascination with which he examines Babe's mouth (famously devised by Olivier after watching a gardener cut some roses). This is screen acting of a very high order, combining broad strokes with subtle and inventive details. Every time he appears, the interest level of the film soars and Olivier responds with one of his most memorable performances. Everything is just perfect and when Schlesinger responds with particularly stylish direction, as in the scene where Szell walks down the street pursued by an elderly Jewish woman who has recognised him from the camp, the film really catches fire. Olivier does some of his best work in this scene, from the increasing anxiety as Szell is recognised in the street to the tense confrontation with Levy in the water station. He was justly nominated for an Oscar for this role but he lost out to Jason Robards (nominated for an equally excellent performance in All The President's Men.)
The basic appeal of this film is, as I suggested earlier, being able to sit back and wallow in expert technicians lending their talents to what is basically the best sort of trash. Conrad Hall's shimmering cinematography is sometimes breathtaking - the chase through the midnight traffic has a nightmarish horror which is truly disturbing - and Jim Clark's editing is fast and precise. It's not anything like as profound as it would like to be and if you begin thinking too carefully about the plot then it collapses like a house of cards, but the film is exciting enough to evade your critical faculties until it finishes. That's an achievement which Schlesinger can be very proud of.
Although Paramount's DVD of Marathon Man isn't a special edition, there are some interesting features present on the disc. Technically, it's generally very good.
The film is presented in anamorphic 1.78:1. Whether this is the technically correct ratio or not - the R1 is 1.85:1 - it looks perfectly fine to me so I won't quibble. The transfer is extremely good overall and it is certainly a vast improvement on the horrible picture quality of the VHS release. There is no noticable artifacting and the picture is crisp and solid. There is a softness throughout but this is intentional on the part of the cinematography. The colours are superb and an improvement on the slight muddiness of the R1 picture.
The English soundtrack on the DVD is a new 5.1 remix. I don't think very much of Dolby Digital 5.1 remixes of original mono soundtracks since they tend to feature the music score and ambient sounds dominating over generally monophonic dialogue. This is no exception, except that the music is generally placed in the centre, and there is so little surround activity that it's hard to see why they bothered. However, the restoration work on the soundtrack does mean this is a crisp and vibrant soundtrack. Hardly any use of the sub-woofer however - an explosion was all I noticed.
There are some nice extras on the disc, reflecting Paramount's improvement in this department. There are three featurettes and the original trailer on the disc. The first featurette is a delightful bit of seventies tat called "The Magic of Hollywood Is the Magic Of People", hosted by the uproariously camp Robert Evans. Sounding like Voiceover Man on Prozac, he waffles on about commitment and talent and generally talks more bollocks than you'll find anywhere this side of a vasectomy clinic. There are brief interviews with Schlesinger, Goldman and Hoffman - the latter obviously in his "serious method actor" guise - and it all ends up with a surprise party for a seemingly overjoyed Olivier. His delight appears genuine, but then the old dog was famous for horrendous insincerity on any given occasion. This is fullframe and lasts 20 minutes.
The second featurette is a much better collection of interviews recorded in 2000 with Hoffman, Goldman, Scheider, Keller and a relatively subdued (but beautifully couiffeured) Robert Evans. No Schlesinger sadly, but the comments are in-depth and interesting. Several myths are debunked, with varying degrees of conviction. The affection for the material and, particularly, for Olivier is a delight. This is a surprisingly interesting featurette and lasts about 30 minutes.
The third feature is a 20 minute collection of rehearsal footage - and contemporary comments - with Hoffman, Scheider and Keller. This is fascinating although it would have been nice to see some of the infamous rehearsals between Hoffman and Olivier.
We also get the original trailer in anamorphic widescreen. There are a very generous 50 chapter stops.
I don't think Marathon Man is a particularly important film, nor as politically insightful as some people have claimed, but it is first class entertainment done with as much style as you could want. The disc is a pleasing package from Paramount and generally recommended.