Marathon Man
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Marathon Man

Some of the best thrillers are carefully built up frequently around one or two key scenes. At that point as far as the majority of the audience is concerned the actual story fads it the background as a single shocking image overwhelms the movie. ‘Marathon Man’ is an example of this phenomenon. If you ask a group of people what they know about this film a significant percentage will tell you about a certain scene that takes place in a dentist chair. They most likely will not go into the excellent performances or recant any of the details of the story but that one scene has become ingrained in popular culture. This film did for dentistry what ‘Jaws’ did for family vacations at the shore. This is often the regrettable side effect of this genre. In order to provide the required thrills to the audience such scenes are required it’s just that sometimes the images are so intense they eclipse the rest of the production. Although there are a few infamous problems with the screenplay the story is sufficiently well constructed to warrant a broader appreciation than just being known for a single instance of torture. This film was part of a popular trend that was at its height in the mid seventies: the espionage thriller. While the most famous franchise are the James Bond movies and their fabulous gadgets but this movie is part of the genre that replaces camp appeal with an emotional component. The bottom line is this is the real strength of the film, how it works as a mind bending psychological thriller that offers an entertaining evening watching. The DVD released by Paramount Pictures has been around for a number of years during a period when the format was still relatively young. The audio was re-mastered 5.1 Dolby culled from the original stereo sound track. There is also a restored mono soundtrack included. Some may be disappointed in the lack of channel separation or sound stage depth. I played around with the settings on my receiver and found that several of the theater emulation modes provided a richer audio experience. The video is also not what those brought up in the digital age would expect. The video has a softer focus than most modern discs but considering the ambiguity of the plot it might pass as a stylistic choice.

The title is admittedly misleading. It is derived from the preferred exercise of history doctorate candidate Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman). He is following in his father’s field, the study of the Nazi regime. His father committed suicide after being caught in the witch hunt of McCarthyism. Babe has a brother, s brother, Henry (Roy Scheider) better known to friends as Doc. Ostensibly Doc is employed as an oil company executive but unknown to most, including Babe, which is just a cover to hide his true occupation as a covert operative for a government headed by the mysterious Director Peter Janeway (William Devane). Seemingly taking a break from his near constant traveling Doc stops off in New York City to visit Babe. Like most things Doc is involved in this is misdirection. His real purpose for being in the city is to obtain a key to a safety deposit box in passion of the brother of a former Nazi war Criminal. Before the meeting the man is killed in a traffic altercation by a middle age man. Doc suspects the Nazi fugitive Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) who is coming to town to obtain a valuable collection of stolen diamonds. Babe really can’t catch a break. Doc takes Babe and his new girlfriend Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) suspecting she is also lying about her true identity and motivation. Doc discovers evidence that she is actually in cahoots with Szell. When Doc is killed by the Nazi things rapidly turn into a nightmare for the lamentable Babe. He gets kidnapped, tortured in the dreaded dentist chair but a more than willing Szell all because the diamonds in question were originally stolen from Jews in the death camps. In some ways the diamonds are a form of a Macguffin, a termed coined by Alfred Hitchcock for a plot device that is important internally to the characters but less vital from the audience’s perspective.

There is usually an advantage having the author of the source novel writing the script. This is the case here with William Goldman providing the translation from his book. Unfortunately the studio mandated a pivotal scene be removed deemed too graphic to film. Goldman vehemently objected citing the critical plot point developed in the scene but was over ruled by the studio executives. Another account relates that Hoffman was able to force a re-write of the ending resulting in as completely different conclusion that the author and fans of the novel felt destroyed the story. Olivier received an academy Award nomination for his role here as the Nazi villain. Ironically, two years later he would be nominated again for an Oscar for his role in ‘The Boys from Brazil’ portraying a Nazi hunter. Directing the film was John Schlesinger who took home his own Oscar for ‘Midnight Cowboy’, which, of course, also starred Hoffman. Schlesinger’s directorial style possesses sufficient force and emotional impact to make up for the derogatory alterations to the script. He infuses the film with a pace that steadily increases to a breakneck momentum. In a film like this nothing is what it seems and Schlesinger carefully doles out clues and exposition keeping the audience as off balanced as the protagonist. Ultimately, this is a flawed movie but still a worthy thriller.

Posted 02/05/11

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