Marathon Man Review
“Is It Safe?” These ominous words are directed repeatedly at Dustin Hoffman’s confused character in Marathon Man (1976), during an infamous torture scene where he’s involuntarily strapped to a chair and having his tooth agonisingly drilled. It remains one of those classic squirm-inducing moments that sticks horrifyingly in the mind, especially for those with even the mildest Dentophobia.
This was the film that reunited Hoffman with director John Schlesinger, eight years after the critically acclaimed Midnight Cowboy. Here he plays Thomas “Babe” Levy, an unassuming mature student and aspiring long-distance runner who continually pushes himself to go just that little bit further. It’s that endurance that will stand Babe in good stead later in the story when he finds himself sucked unexpectedly into a maelstrom of deadly espionage and double-crosses.
William Goldman’s densely plotted screenplay, adapted from his hugely successful novel, never lets us know much more than Babe. It is apparent from a series of flashbacks, that he’s still deeply haunted by his father’s suicide many years earlier, following a McCarthy-era witch hunt. We’re drip fed scraps of information during much of the film’s first half, with disjointed scenes that at first don’t make a great deal of sense.
In the opening minutes an item of value is collected from a safe deposit box by an elderly man, who then becomes embroiled in a chase with another aged driver through the streets of New York following a minor road rage incident, before both vehicles crash and become engulfed in flames. Elsewhere in Paris, there has been a murder at an opera house and a mysterious assassin still lurks menacingly in the wings. What does it all mean? It's safe to say that this is not a film for those who demand swift answers, or indeed all the pieces fitting neatly together.
Babe’s life starts to fall apart when his long-absent brother Doc (an excellent Roy Scheider) turns up unexpectedly. It is at this shocking point that some truths emerge, namely that Doc is not the successful businessman involved in the oil industry as Babe had always believed. During some much needed exposition delivered in the back of a speeding car, it’s revealed that Doc is in fact a member of “The Division” - one of those nefarious government organisations that do all the dirty work that even the FBI and CIA won’t handle. The agency has been obtaining intelligence from the elusive Doctor Christian Szell (Lawrence Olivier), a monstrous former Nazi scientist who had been based at Auschwitz several decades earlier.
In return they have been handling his financial affairs, which involve a cache of stolen diamond stashed in a New York vault. Fearing he is about to be ripped off, the ageing war criminal promptly leaves his secret jungle hideaway in Paraguay and heads for the city. Szell believes – wrongly in this case - that Babe must hold some vital information gleaned from his brother and is determined to find out everything at any cost. Very soon Babe doesn’t know who to trust, and even his new-found love interest Elsa may have something to hide (nicely played by Swiss actress Marthe Keller).
The script is not as accomplished as Goldman’s sublime screenplay for All the President’s Men – which came out earlier that same year and would later win him a well-deserved Oscar. Despite the plot in this case not holding up to scrutiny, Schlesinger does stage several well-crafted set pieces and it’s all vividly brought to life too by Oscar winning DOP Conrad Hall.
One suspenseful highlight is a nail-biting sequence as Babe becomes trapped inside his bathroom as some unknown assailants slowly break through the door, followed by a breakneck chase through the streets as our barefooted hero sprints frantically for his life clad only in pyjama bottoms. Hoffman is undeniably on top form as the terrified everyman out of his depth, while Olivier as the nonchalant Szell manages to be memorably chilling, underplaying his role to perfection. For those willing to overlook its shortcomings, Marathon Man holds up well and still delivers a gripping slice of escapism.
Marathon Man is a dual-format release, forming part of the HMV Premium Collection (no. 82 in the series). Previous DVD editions have had quite a soft image with washed out colours, further tarnished by intermittent spots appearing in the frame. By comparison, the 1080p HD disc, presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, is a significant improvement. That’s despite it being sourced from the same older master used for a UK and US release several years ago.
The image is cleaner and sharper than the more widely available DVD, bringing out much more fine detail that was previously lost and doing justice to Conrad Hall’s notable cinematography – check out the magnificent location work in Paris. No discernible signs of damage were observed. There is still definitely room for improvement, with those colours remaining a little drab in places. It’s just a shame that a 4K remaster has not been forthcoming, not even for the film’s 40th anniversary in 2016.
Audio options available on the BD include English DTS-HD MA 5.1 and the original Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Purists will probably opt for the latter, which does a respectable enough job. Dialogue is crisp and clear throughout, without any audible imperfections. English subtitles are included.
Marathon Man was downgraded to a 15 rating by the BBFC a few years ago for cinema screenings, but retains an 18 certificate for home viewing.
What is sorely missing is a digital download copy of the film – which has been provided for many of the earlier Premium Collection titles. That is because most of the other releases are from Warner Bros and Marathon Man is a Paramount title, who sadly haven’t provided that option. There is over an hour of archival material ported over from an earlier release:
Magic of Hollywood: Making of Marathon Man (20:20) – a vintage featurette from the seventies with some intriguing behind the scenes footage, including the astonishing water works set constructed on the Paramount lot for the film’s thrilling climax. Producer Robert Evans hosts and at one point even predicts that Roy Scheider will become the next Bogart!
Going the Distance: Remembering Marathon Man (29:05) – A retrospective documentary made in 2001, including interviews with many of the key players. Legendary writer Goldman, who died earlier this month, reveals how aspects of the film were changed from his original novel. Scheider says he was handed the book whilst shooting Jaws (1975) and was so enthralled he finished reading it overnight. Hoffman meanwhile is full of admiration for director Schlesinger, describing it as “one of his best experiences”. Also discussed is Hoffman’s well-known method acting and the extraordinary lengths he goes to getting into character, which prompted Olivier to famously advise him “why don’t you just try acting”.
Rehearsal footage (20:12)
Theatrical Trailer (2:36) – the quality is a bit ropey, but who can resist a vintage trailer.
Collector’s booklet - which provides further writing on the film, including some interesting trivia (various sources are credited), plus there are also four glossy art cards.
Marathon Man was released as part of the Premium Collection on 19th November 2018.