[Film Review] Marathon Man (1976)

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Title: Marathon Man
Year: 1976
Country: USA
Language: English, French, German, Spanish , Yiddish
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Director: John Schlesinger
Screenwriter: William Goldman
based on his own novel
Music: Michael Small
Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall
Dustin Hoffman
Laurence Olivier
Roy Scheider
William Devane
Marthe Keller
Fritz Weaver
Richard Bright
Marc Lawrence
Jacques Marin
Ben Dova
Lou Gilbert
James Wing Woo
Treat Williams
Rating: 7.3/10

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Inhabiting John Schlesinger’s cynical, violent, Jew’s revenge tale MARATHON MAN, borne out of on William Goldman’s eponymous novel, various characters are driven solely by their cupidity (no patriotic motive or political agenda is involved) to enforce double-crossing, honey trap, home invasion, interrogation, assassination and bomb explosion to the extreme. Only our protagonist, the Columbia University post-graduate student Thomas “Babe” Levy (Hoffman, significantly undergoes a physical transformation and is pungently expressive when things spiral out of his ways of comprehension) is innocently embroiled in a sinister diamond acquisition scheme, because of his own brother Henry “Doc” Levy (Scheider, builds up great mystique around a more intriguing character, only to be gutted halfway in a shocking kicker) turns out to be a secret government agent, and one of the couriers of the diamonds’ transactions, plus both have a millstone around their necks due to the death of their father, an intellectual persecuted in the McCarthy era for Communist affiliation, one tries to right the wrong and the other chooses to sweep it under the carpet.

It all starts with a highly improbable car accident, inflamed by ant-Nazi furor and causing a casualty of two, one of them is the brother of the most-wanted Nazi left alive, Dr. Christian Szell (Olivier), aka, “the White Angel of Auschwitz”, who is therefore, forced out of his hiding in Paraguay, and precipitates his advent in New York to reclaim the diamonds left by his dead brother in a bank’s vault.

In another tautly executed paralleled subplot, Doc survives within a whisker of meeting his own maker from several assassination attempts on his secret mission in Paris, after dispatching a killer he knows, he suspects someone is dispatching all the couriers, and expresses his concern to his superior Peter Janeway (Devane), then shortly after he reunites with Babe, and incidentally discloses the disguised identity of the latter’s continental girlfriend Elsa (Keller, emulating a more relaxed Faye Dunaway impression in an underdeveloped and sidelined role but nevertheless, leaves some impact for her sorry ambivalence), his rendezvous with Szell ends up with him being mortally wounded (there is something under-explained in terms of causality here), and he exhales the last gasp in the arms of Babe, ergo, Babe is plunged into a consecutive horror of abduction, grilling, torture and chase, exacted by Peter, Szell and his underlings, just because they think he knows something about the diamond, here comes Szell’s relentless catchphrase “Is it safe?”.

Eventually, owing to his preparation for the upcoming marathon (yes, he is an avid runner), Babe literally runs out of harm’s way, only to be led up to another set-up rounded off with a David-versus-Goliath victory, the maxim is that even a pacifist can shoot straighter than hapless pro killers when a film is in its homestretch, so that Babe can square up the whole shebang with Szell in the Central Park, where a gun always comes handier than a hidden blade, and a diamond-swallowing act gives a bald Olivier something more to chew than his chillingly diabolical embodiment of pure evil, an Oscar nomination is a sweet payoff.

In the event, MARATHON MAN is a cracking pulp fiction connived by signs of its times such as paranoia, cynicism and a rabid vindictiveness fuelled by anti-Nazi fervor, but when the movie is in its kinetic mode, it is a top-tier thriller, relentlessly ominous and unflappably probing the profound helplessness when no one can be trusted in this wretched world.

referential entries: Schlesinger’ DARLING (1965, 7.8/10), SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (1971, 7.9/10); Sydney Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975, 6.7/10)

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