Marathon Man’s one of those movies where the deficiencies become less easy to ignore the more times you see it. On first viewing, it’s an absorbing, visceral thriller with smart twists and occasionally surprising turns, lent a degree of conviction somewhat at odds with its Nazi war criminal on-the-loose mythos (for more of that, see The Boys from Brazil a couple of years later). There are various disagreements on record with regard to the better course of key production decisions, mostly based on screenwriter William Goldman being unimpressed with changes made by director John Schlesinger in concert with star Dustin Hoffman, but the picture’s essential problems are beyond either creative conflagrations. Because both, in various ways, were trying to dress pure pulp up as respectable, prestige moviemaking, with the effect that, like new wine in old skins, it starts leaking everywhere.
Pauline Kael was not a fan, and while I think Marathon Man is a much more engaging picture than she did, she was spot on when she asserted Schlesinger “attempts material that lesser directors can do better”. He continually overdoes the resonant visuals, intercutting Hoffman’s Babe’s running with sepia footage or stills of athletes and his childhood grief. The effect is to expose how slender the character is, not to bolster him. Midnight Cowboy, which I consider massively overrated, and Day of the Locust, which is massively self-important, allowed Schlesinger to work on a level he considered artistically reflective of his own interests. With Marathon Man, he could only attempt to plaster on texture and hope it sticks.
The same is true of his leading man. Hoffman’s delivering much too much performance here for Babe’s slenderness (“there’s more background than foreground in Babe’s character” as Kael put it). When he’s just reacting – to being tortured, to his brother dying – he’s great, but the detrimental Dustin tics and quirks are fully to the fore when Babe is required to work things out and ask questions. There’s way too much Hoffman for such a slim character, something also underlined by his being way too old, and not a terribly convincing marathon runner (any more than a terribly convincing woman).
Laurence Olivier lobbied for the part of Nazi war criminal Christian Szell, and he was famously experiencing terminal health issues at the time (he’d live another eleven years). It’s interesting that Hoffman told Sir Larry he was hamming it up (“Too much, dear boy?”), because the response ought to have been that you can’t deliver too much when you’re playing a cartoon. Szell is a walking Machiavelli, having secured his fortune through diamonds taken from Jews killed at Auschwitz.
Thirty years have done nothing to dampen his inherent sadism and enjoyment of making his victims suffer, hence the infamous torture scene in which, as a licensed dentist, he drills Babe’s healthy teeth. There’s also his retractable blade, good for killing Babe’s brother or any Village inhabitant calling him out that day. He’s set up to meet a horrible end, basically, and Olivier musters the part with due concentrated evil (he would balance things out by playing for the angels in the aforementioned The Boys from Brazil two years later). Obviously, it’s a short distance from here to the Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Nazis (and, let’s face it, the Schindler’s List ones too, Hollywood caricatures all).
The Hoffman-Olivier clash of acting styles has sired more commentary over the years than anything in the film itself, including that dental chair scene. Some of it comes from Goldman, who recapped his involvement with the adaptation of his 1974 novel in Adventures in the Screen Trade, mainly by focussing on what a trooper the suffering knight was in the face of the somewhat inconsiderate demands of his self-involved co-star. Some say Goldman was simply pissed off because they changed his ending (Robert Towne rewrote it). Hoffman has attempted to reshape the “Why don’t you just try acting?” anecdote, but one can sense the truth in Goldman’s assessment that the star’s behaviour was all about insecurity. Also, most likely, it was because Hoffman’s a bit of a jerk and will test anyone’s patience (Sydney Pollack run through the mill on Tootsie). He certainly doesn’t do his sex-pest reputation any favours in the DVD doc when he comments on how well he and Marthe Keller got along with a nebbish grin and “If I hadn’t been married at the time…”
Kael called the novel “… Death Wish with a lone Jewish boy getting his own back from the Nazis… a Jewish revenge fantasy” but felt the movie squandered that and the potential for suspense. Certainly, Hoffman admits to having reacted instinctively against this in respect of the ending and “killing a Nazi”. It’s this that led to Towne rewriting the scene and the demand to “Eat the diamonds”, with Szell falling on his sword, so to speak. “Hollywood loves that shit” opined Goldman, but I’m not sure his gun-wielding marathon runner would have been altogether better. I’ll give Goldman that his version isn’t trying to dress mutton as lamb, but at the core they’re still both yielding to the writer’s “boys’-book-rites-of-manhood universe”.
It’s why I agree with Scheider’s assessment on reading the novel, that the most interesting character was killed off at the halfway mark. That character being Babe’s brother Doc, the fellow Scheider plays; he didn’t yet have the part when he read it, though (notably, Goldman resurrected Doc for sequel Brothers, which sounds absolutely dreadful. Goldman called it quits on novel writing soon after). Doc inhabits this genre universe with due conviction; in contrast, it’s quite rare for the average-joe thriller to work with any kind of verisimilitude if that average joe proves remarkably capable – and particularly so with a weapon.
I don’t disagree with Kael’s assessment of the obscurity of the double games the Division is operating; “Whenever we wanted to bring one of them in, we come to Szell” Janeway (William Devane) explains, regarding the Division’s relationship with the Nazi, who would presumably rat on his old buddies to maintain his freedom. So why Szell now suspects Doc of double-crossing him (or double double-crossing him) is unclear. Even more why he thinks he can get away with stabbing Doc to death. And as for the nature of Janeway’s double agent status, who knows why he disposes of Szell’s henchmen at Szell’s brother’s house (it may mop up potential threats, but it certainly doesn’t mop up Babe, as he discovers a minute later).
Doc: You know, the great Chablis of the world are almost always green eyed. In fact, they’re the ones that most resemble diamonds.
If these elements are murky, Scheider’s presence lends a backbone to this heightened world; he’s never trying to make the part into something it isn’t, which is the case whenever Hoffman’s on screen. The torture scene may be the most famous, but for my money, two others are more indelible, both featuring Scheider. The first has Doc attacked with a piano wire, seriously injuring his hand and resulting in a tense fight with his opponent (blocked out by Scheider and his martial-artist fellow performer after Roy rejected Schlesinger’s ideas). The second finds Doc taking Babe and Elsa (Marthe Keller) to dinner, focussing his questions on her bona fides and swiftly calling her out. It’s a great scene of reframing the movie’s reality; it appeared that Babe was pursuing Elsa until this point, but Doc taking minutes to see she’s something else.
In the novel, Doc and Janey were lovers, not something that occurred to me from seeing the movie, even as Schlesinger takes the opportunity to pore over every inch of his lead performers’ toned physiques (even Scheider’s face is sinewy). But then, it seems the crucial content to Doc’s character “slipping” was also excised: an early eight-minute passage in which he kills two assassins who in turn killed a spy colleague (Goldman felt this explained why he would show up at Babe’s door). The sequence was removed in the name of excessive violence, apparently (as was Doc being disembowelled by Szell), but by limiting Doc’s presence, it also serves to keep in focus who the real protagonist is.
While William Devane is a fine actor, there was no way you’d cast him if you really wanted to divert suspicion from a character. He’s inherently villain material, and so you expect he’ll turn out to be duplicitous. The sequence in which this occurs is a decent enough fake out, though, following on from the likes of The Ipcress File and preceding the likes of The Game. Keller has little to do that isn’t cypher-ish; she’d make more impression on Hollywood when her hair started falling out in the following year’s Bobby Deerfield. Inevitably, she’s killed once she has served her purpose. It’s that kind of movie.
It’s also the kind of movie where any given Nazi war criminal straying into Greenwich Village three decades down the line can’t move for being recognised by a Holocaust survivor every five yards. One occasion might be plausible, but using the device three times is plain sloppy. And again, it draws attention to the pulpy nature of the material. You almost expect Mel Brooks to show up.
There’s a superb score in the tone of Michael Small’s conspiracy predecessor The Parallax View, all eerie cues. Conrad Hall’s cinematography is top notch too. Robert Evans, naturally, sold the hell out of the movie. I mean, he’s the kind of guy who’d seek to persuade you Kissinger is a great bloke. No, really. Marathon Man duly garnered Olivier an Oscar nod, but no more than that (BAFTA noticed Hoffman, though, and the recently-cancelled for un-wokeness Golden Globes, being typically indiscriminate, had it nominated five times. Olivier won his). It’s actually a good example of New Hollywood gradually sliding back into more shamelessly commercial fare, without anyone batting an eyelid. Involving, engaging, great performances, flashy direction. But very low calorie.