Most actors merely play themselves on screen time and again, but the best performers are chameleon-like, transforming themselves into different parts. Dustin Hoffman may be the best of the breed, playing everything from a naive, preppy college student to a wasted down-and-outer; from a Devil's Island prisoner to a canny news reporter; from an outrageous young standup comic to an elderly, confused, and dying salesman; from an autistic savant to a nefarious fairy-tale sea captain; from a safecracker to a concerned husband; and everything in-between.
In director John Schlesinger's 1976 hit, "Marathon Man," he becomes involved in one of his few outright thrillers, and both he and his equally chameleon-like costar, the redoubtable Sir Laurence Olivier, are every bit as good as we expect them to be. Unfortunately, they're not given a script worthy of their talents, and the intrigue that might have been turns out flatter than it should.
The movie neatly divides into two parts. The first section introduces us to the characters and sets up the story's later machinations. It's by far the best part of the film and promises good, scary things to come. The second half brings the disparate elements of the first part together in rather disappointing ways. "Marathon Man" must be enjoyed on the level of its acting alone, which, it turns out, almost makes it worthwhile.
Anyway, the script was written by William Goldman and is based upon his novel. The movie begins by setting up a conflict between a group of present-day Jews and former Nazi Germans in New York City. We follow a car chase between two elderly men, one a Jew, the other a German, that results in both men crashing and burning to death. We learn that the German was the brother of a high-ranking Nazi official (Olivier) now living in exile in South America. Next, we're introduced to a young Jewish doctoral student, Babe Levy (Hoffman), who enjoys marathon running in his spare time. The running business will become a minor element later in the story, although, as we'll see, not as much as we figure on.
Levy's father, it's explained, was an academic and a victim of the McCarthy-era purges of the fifties, who eventually committed suicide. Then, we're shown the exploits of what appears to be an American spy named Doc (Roy Scheider), around whom people die like flies. We shortly get the impression someone's trying to do him in; and his boss, a fellow named Janeway (William Devane), doesn't seem too concerned. Then, a beautiful young woman named Elsa (Marthe Keller) shows up as a love interest for Babe, and their romance goes swimmingly until they're mugged in Central Park by two mysteriously well-dressed men. Finally, we're presented with the person of Christian Szell himself, the Nazi war-criminal-in-hiding whose brother was killed earlier.
There's enough material here for two sequels, but what does screenwriter Goldman do with all of this stuff? You're probably asking the wrong guy. I've watched the film three times now, and I still can't figure out most of what goes on in the film's second half, or why. The "why" is particularly annoying. The script, in fact, becomes so convoluted and falls into so many clichés that it eventually seems no more than a tired retread of every espionage movie ever filmed.
First, practically no one turns out to be who we think they are; "trust no one" is a refrain we've heard before. Second, very little of the information we learn about the characters in the beginning has much bearing on what happens to them later. Some things, in fact, like the background information on Babe's father, go nowhere. Heck, not even all the preliminary time spent on Babe's marathon running makes much difference in the second half. Of course, there are pursuits on foot, but it's not like Hoffman has to run the length of the city. Third, most of the second-half action is blatantly farfetched, much more preposterous than should be embraced by a film with such serious ambitions. This isn't a tongue-in-cheek farce but a straightforward espionage yarn, so we depend on a credibility that weakens with every passing moment. Red herrings abound, deadly encounters are around every corner, and coincidences keep believability at a premium.
The suspense we anticipate from watching the movie's first half quickly degenerates into wasted energy in the second. Lastly, there's an ending that makes you wonder, "Is that all?" I mean, when we at last find out why all these people were fighting and killing one another and what Olivier's character is actually up to, we can only ask, "Why didn't he just do that in the first place?" Obviously, I can't tell you any more of the story details in the event you haven't seen the film, but trust me, the outcome hardly justifies the expense.
Nevertheless, in spite of its plot weaknesses, "Marathon Man" does reveal what supremely good actors Hoffman and Olivier are. Hoffman is forever the vulnerable innocent caught in the middle, like one of Hitchcock's ordinary-bystander heroes to whom incredibly extraordinary things happen. And Olivier's Szell is one of filmdom's great arch-villains. Even brought out of semi-retirement and with afflictions besetting every part of his body, Olivier manages to convey a towering, confident sense of evil--a cool, calculating malevolence matched by very few other baddies in screen history. What he does with a dentist's probe and an electrical drill shouldn't even be thought about, let alone seen. "Is it safe?" is Szell's continuously intimidating question. In one of the documentaries we're told that shortly after the film opened and after audiences had learned about the torture scenes, people would get up and walk out of the theater, coming back when they knew the worst was over. Well, it's these very torture scenes that are among the main reasons for the film's celebrity all these many years later, so who's to complain?
Paramount present the picture in a ratio that measures 1.91:1 across a normal TV, rather odd dimensions and some that I've never run across before, making me wonder what its actual theatrical size was. In any case, the image quality is a little rough and grainy for the opening few minutes, but I wouldn't let it put you off; it settles down and clears up reasonably well thereafter, revealing beautifully rich colors. If anything, however, they're a bit too deep and dark for absolute realism. Of course, this extra duskiness may be part of Schlesinger's intention in creating a noir mood. Who knows.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is slightly nasal and harsh, imparting a fairly narrow stereo spread and very minor rear-channel information. The refurbished monaural track is actually fuller, smoother, and warmer.
The bonus items are surprisingly good. There is no full-feature commentary, which would have been useful, but there are two documentaries and some rehearsal footage that are informative. The first documentary, called "The Making of Marathon Man," is twenty-one minutes long and was made at the time of the film's production. Producer Robert Evans narrates the film, which includes interviews with cast and crew. Then, there's second, brand-new documentary, "Going the Distance: Remembering Marathon Man," with recent interviews with cast and crew. Both films provide fascinating insights and reminiscences. Next, there's over twenty minutes of rehearsal footage with actors' commentary, again fascinating material for the film buff. A welcome fifty scene selections accompany the main feature, along with a widescreen theatrical trailer. English and French are provided for spoken languages and English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
It's fun to see a young pro like Hoffman working so well with an old pro like Olivier. Some critics thought it was beneath Olivier's dignity to portray such an unscrupulous villain as Szell on screen, but as Olivier always maintained, he was only an actor. Such a wonderfully modest understatement. In spite of ill health, Olivier continued working almost until the time of his death in 1989.
Dignified or not, his presence and Hoffman's in "Marathon Man" almost raises the movie above the pulp-fiction ranks of its script. It's not a genuinely convincing thriller, but at least it's one that makes us think we're seeing something more important than it is because of the virtues of its participants. And, who knows, maybe I've just been too seeped in espionage tales over the years to appreciate this one. Viewers who haven't become so jaded may find "Marathon Man" exactly the clever, suspenseful, tension-filled adventure they're looking for.