Marathon Man Movie Review

"Is it safe?"

Brrrr... those words still chill me.

Marathon Man (tagline: "A thriller") stands in the odd position of being one of Dustin Hoffman's finest performances while also being one of writer William Goldman's (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) most inscrutable tales. I've seen the film (newly released on DVD) a half-dozen times and with each viewing I find myself, at some point, scratching my head.

Adapted from Goldman's own novel, the complicated tale focuses on a grad student nicknamed Babe (Hoffman), who becomes wrapped up in a mystery, quite against his wildest expectations. As things play out, we discover that Babe's brother Doc (Roy Scheider, Jaws) is a covert operative in "The Division," a CIA-like black ops group that plays on both sides of the Iron Curtain. (This is 1976, after all.)

But Doc is killed, and after crawling back up to Babe's New York apartment, ostensibly to tell him some great secret about The Division, he dies without a word. But when the cops clear out, Babe is kidnapped and ends up being tortured by a mysterious German named Szell (Laurence Olivier, in an excellent against-type role) -- a former dentist who also happened to ply his trade at Auschwitz, so you can imagine what Babe is in store for. Szell constantly asks "Is it safe?" but of couirse Babe has no idea what he means.

What turns out is that Szell has secreted away all the diamonds he stole from the Jews during WWII in a U.S. safe deposit box, and he wants to know if it's safe to finally make a withdrawal and sell them.

Well, that's it in a nutshell. Like I say, Marathon Man is an extremely cryptic film, and that's putting it kindly. It's not David Lynch cryptic, but director John Schlesinger has never done anything this enigmatic before or since.

What's more is that Goldman's backstory for Babe is kept largely intact -- his father committed suicide when he became a suspect during the McCarthy investigations. He's a compulsive runner (which gets him out of a few jams)... a characteristic so important it lends the film its title.

So what of Marathon Man, the movie? As a Cold War spy thriller, it's one of the best you'll find from the 1970s. Hoffman and Olivier, when together, perform two of cinema's most memorable sequences -- including the finale when Babe finally gets to turn the tables. Schlesinger does fairly good work with Goldman's puzzler, though the film could have benefited from rewrites and tighter editing. Ultimately, though, one of the most memorable parts of the film is its music, creepy piano/synth stuff that sounds just a tad out of tune. It grates perfectly on the nerves... just like a dentist's drill.

Marathon Man's DVD includes two documentaries (one shot then, one shot now), the trailer, and footage shot during rehearsals.


Marathon Man Rating

" Extraordinary "

Rating: R, 1976


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