Sunday, May 17, 2009

Film #127: Marathon Man

After winning Oscars in 1969 for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and again in 1976 for All the President's Men, legendary screenwriter William Goldman scribbled down the novel Marathon Man as well as its corresponding screenplay. Produced in 1976, the movie is clearly flawed, yet still I count it as an enjoyable tension-fest from Midnight Cowboy director John Schlesinger. A long way from Ratso, Dustin Hoffman plays an athletic Columbia University student who, through the actions of his desperate CIA operative brother (Roy Schieder), unwittingly becomes enmeshed in an exiled Nazi's scheme to retrieve a vile cache of concentration-camp diamonds. Marathon Man's an often outneedly vulgar movie (the opening scene--an ugly NYC street battle between an elderly, alleged Nazi and a Jewish accuser--is particularly distasteful), and it's repeatedly stultified by a romantic subplot involving suspicious Marthe Keller (she's always a Euro-nothing in movies, and her male counterpart, the equally untrustworthy William Devane, could be considered an Amerinothing). So I'm not really making a case for loving this film, am I? That's 'cause I'm holding back on the one outstanding feature that makes it worth seeing. I mean, yeah, Hoffman gives his dim character enough cunning and vulnerability to keep us caring, but really this movie makes my cut based solely on the searing supporting performance delivered by Lawrence Olivier, who wholly dominates the proceedings as Dr. Christian Szell ("The White Angel"), the ice-cold Nazi physician looking for those gems he filched from Jewish victims.

In the movie's most famous and distressing scene, Szell terrorizes Hoffman with Novocain-less dentistry and the horrifyingly vague query "Is it safe?" (Olivier repeats the same line over 20 times during his first major appearance, and each time the line's said with a radically differing inflection; it's an astonishing movie moment that no doubt accounts for Olivier's ninth Oscar nomination; I do need to also praise Hoffman's performance opposite Olivier, even IF--and maybe BECAUSE--the two actors hated each other). Chalk it up to Olivier; because of his late-career charisma, Marathon Man overcomes Schlesinger's lazy drabness and huge plot problems--this is NOT one of William Goldman's most well-considered writerly moments--and remains a memorable bit of 70s paranoia. Even so, Marathon Man's also a prime example of a movie that could easily go unseen were it not for the presence of a single jewel.


Dean Treadway said...


I haven’t seen Marathon Man in ages, but I recall really liking it. Of course, the “Is it safe?” scene is legendary. Wasn’t Marthe Keller pretty much the most boring actress of the 70’s? Yet she was in all these high profile films like Black Sunday, Marathon Man and Bobby Deerfield.

Dean Treadway said...

Yeah, she's the proof that just because you've been on some magazine cover doesn't mean you need to be in movies, too. She's no Cybill Shepard.

James Walsh said...

I like Marthe Keller. She is directing opera now I think.

phil said...

I think that Marthe Keller played her part well in Marathan Man, can't really understand the negative comments here.
The whole cast were terrific, particularly Olivier and Hoffman.
The film was so well made, and in my opinion is one of only a few that really draw you into the whole plot.
One of my all time favs.