Thursday, July 31, 2014

Off Script: Marathon Man

Film: Marathon Man
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Every year, I make a list of suggestions of films that I think should be on the 1001 Movies list. The first time I did that, one of the movies I suggested was Marathon Man. I like ‘70s thrillers, and Marathon Man is one of the best. The surface complexity masks a very simple story, the villain is one of the best in movie history, and the violence is pretty brutal in places without this really going anywhere near horror territory. Put another way, it does a lot right without getting much wrong.

The success of the film, at least to me, is the difference between that surface complexity and the actual story at work. On the surface, we’ve got Nazi doctors, diamond smuggling, conspiracy, murder…it never seems to end. In reality, though, the story is really about one man’s paranoia spiraling out of control and resulting in about a dozen deaths.

Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a graduate student in history. He also happens to run a lot as if training for a marathon. Meanwhile, his brother Doc (Roy Scheider) is an agent for a shadowy government organization. Among his tasks is dealing with Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), a dentist and former Nazi who worked at Auschwitz. Babe would have happily gone to his grave knowing nothing of this, except for the fact that Szell’s brother is killed in a freak accident. This puts Szell’s income of diamonds in jeopardy, essentially forcing him out of hiding. An assassin tries to kill Doc in Paris, and eventually Doc’s associate (and perhaps more) Janeway (William Devane) is tossed into the mix as well. Also a player is Elsa (Marthe Keller), a foreign student who begins a relationship with Babe.

Beyond the Nazi dentist and the shadowy government agencies, though, this really is a story about paranoia and moving diamonds. With his brother dead, Szell arrives in New York to retrieve a cache of stones from a safe deposit box. He also becomes convinced that someone is going to rob him as he leaves the bank, a belief that sets off a series of plots and murders that don’t end until the film comes to a halt.

If there is a weakness here, it comes mostly (but not entirely) at the start. A great deal is made initially about Babe’s father. We’re told that the man was a respected professor of history but that he ran afoul of HUAC and was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Eventually, he killed himself. We’re led to believe that this event is somehow formative for Babe, but very little comes of it in the end. I’m not sure what value these scenes actually have for the audience except as a red herring. I’d like more development here or for these little side plots to be ignored in favor of the narrative.

The most famous scene in the film is the one pictured at the top. Szell, sure that Babe knows something about the potential theft. He kidnaps Babe and starts plotting, and this is where the movie goes right for the disturbing stuff that gives people nightmares. As a former dentist, Szell uses dentistry as a way to torture those he wants information from. Naturally, once in his clutches, Babe becomes a target for some very upsetting and nasty dental work that he didn’t plan for.

I seem to like ‘70s thrillers quite a bit, and I’m of the opinion that Marathon Man is among the best. This is a smart film, one that doesn’t play with what it expects its audience to understand and figure out. There are plenty of red herrings here that are basically there just to spice things up and keep things difficult, and to mask that this story is actually quite simple. While some of these red herrings (the dad, etc.) don’t really pay off in the long run, the rest of them end up painting a very strange but quite compelling picture.

I’m a fan. I had no plans to watch this originally until I saw the movie on a library shelf. It had been too long since I’d seen it last, and I’m happy I watched it again tonight.

Why to watch Marathon Man: One of the best thrillers ever made.
Why not to watch: Odontophobia.


  1. This film has the single most effective torture scene I have ever watched in a film. And it plays right into my nightmare of being accused of something I didn't do. The torture will continue until an answer is given that can't be given.

    I do joke about the nature of the villain in this film, though. It seemed like every third movie in the 70s had Nazis as the bad guys. I picture a movie studio prepping this film and the head not being happy with yet another Nazi as villain. "It's been done. It's not evil enough. We need something more." "I know, we'll make him a Nazi DENTIST!"

    1. Yeah, I can see that. However, you have to admit that Szell is a damned effective villain. He is a scary dude in this.

      And yes, while this isn't a mistaken identity film, it has all the earmarks of that sub-genre. It's a pretty easy to understand fear. The idea of being tortured for no reason...that's the stuff of nightmares.

  2. I am happy you pointed out the dad sub-plot. I could not work out the role Babe's father had in all this and felt certain i had simply missed the clue. Explaining it as a red herring is not exactly satisfying, but at least o do not feel so bad about myself.

    1. Yeah, I still don't get it. Maybe it leads to Babe being naturally prepared to attack Nazis?