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Marathon Man (1976)
~Review by Grawlix (April 2018)
“Is it safe?” There are certain movies that become identified with a single, iconic soundbite. Sometimes, this soundbite becomes so iconic, that it manages to eclipse the rest of the movie. “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” became an enduring part of the cultural zeitgeist starting in the late 70s, but by the 90s not one person in ten could tell you the title of the movie from which it originated (Network). But if there was a soundbite that was even more iconic than “I’m mad as hell…”, it was “Is it safe?”, usually accompanied by a dentist’s drill. In the early nineties, it seemed to be referenced everywhere, mostly through parody. It was so ubiquitous, that it wasn’t uncommon to laugh at the joke without ever knowing it’s origin. I certainly did. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that the source of the joke was Marathon Man, and it wasn’t until recently that I finally sat down and watched it. Shame on me.
Marathon Man is a thriller, a slow burning fuse of a movie that takes its time setting up its dominoes before giving the first one a flick. Dustin Hoffman stars as Babe, a Poli-Sci grad student who’s also training for a marathon, hence the title. Rob Scheider plays Doc, Babe’s older brother. Babe believes Doc to be a simple businessman, but it quickly becomes clear that Doc’s line of work is of the more clandestine variety. When one of Doc’s missions goes awry, Babe winds up embroiled in an elaborate international conspiracy, forced to think on his feet when he’s not running for his life.
Hoffman may have top billing, but the first half of the film belongs to Scheider. For the longest time my sole exposure to Scheider was through Jaws, in which he played a thalassophobic police chief forced to go on a very dangerous fishing trip, so it’s been quite the belated revelation, watching his other movies, to discover how many badass roles he’s actually played. Scheider’s Doc is both sophisticated and sleazy, equally at home in an office or an alley. It’s a potent mixture of suave and uncouth that reminded me more than a little of classic James Bond. It’s never clear on which side of the law he’s operating, but in a movie like this everyone’s motives are usually suspect.
I must sheepishly admit that I’m less familiar with Hoffman’s films, particularly his early ones, but if Marathon Man is any indication, I can see how he built his reputation. Thrown into the deep end of a situation he can barely begin to understand, Hoffman’s Babe has the impressive ability to project strength and vulnerability simultaneously. Even when he’s firmly in control of a situation (which is rarely) he seems on the verge of tears. Method or not, Hoffman’s relentless performance adds significant emotional weight to a character who’s maudlin sniveling could easily have rendered him unlikeable.
Rounding out the main cast is the late, great Lawrence Olivier who plays Christian Szell, an exiled Nazi war criminal forced to come out of hiding to handle affairs previously left to intermediaries. Olivier plays Szell as an elitist prick, but genial as long as he’s getting his way. It’s a common depiction of displaced tyrants, in my film watching experience, but Olivier snagged himself a Best Supporting statue for this one so it’s possible he was one of the first to do it this way.
Regarding the infamous torture scene, it turns out that Szell was a dentist by trade. So, yeah, our bad guy is a Nazi dentist. Talk about the sum of all fears. His repeated intonation of “Is it safe”, as at this point, neither Babe, nor the audience knows what he’s talking about, along with the almost affable initial examination he performs, is a chillingly convincing portrayal of an individual for whom torture has become trite and routine. The scene is honestly not that graphic, supposedly a more explicit version was trimmed down after test screenings, but much like the infamous ear scene in Reservoir Dogs, sound is enough. Between this movie and Little Shop of Horrors, I’m amazed anybody ever went to a dentist again. Hoffman really sells the damage too. There’s a subtle bit of makeup work, but the way he is constantly, seemingly unconsciously, tonguing the inside of his mouth for the rest of the movie is an appreciated commitment to continuity, especially these days when action stars routinely shrug off multiple gunshot wounds.
Marathon Man is one of those movies of a type that people of a certain age tend to lament isn’t made anymore, but while it is very good, it isn’t perfect. The thriller elements sometimes trip over themselves and there are so many twists and double crosses that some character motivations are rendered muddled, if not outright indecipherable. Not that I need everything all wrapped up in a neat box by the end, but it’s worth noting that creating complexity is easy. Having that complexity boil down to rational story when all the cards are on the table, that’s the hard part. It’s kind of like the difference between mixing up a Rubik’s cube and solving one. I just have to assume that it all made sense in the book. Also, there’s a romance side plot predicated on that much-maligned-these-days trope of a clumsy doofus blurting out “I love you” to a complete stranger being all that’s apparently needed before they’re in bed two scenes later. There is a little more to it than that, but honestly the full revelation generates more questions than it answers. Some contemporary critics seemed to think the whole old-Nazi-villain idea was already played out by this point, which is funny to me since filmmakers are still using it forty years later, only this time they tend to be zombies now too. Personally, I think it works pretty well considering the scheming of hidden 3rd Reich Nazis was still a plausible real-life idea at the time. But it does lead to a sequence late in the film that I won’t discuss in detail, but I will say that, while it’s maybe not so much culturally insensitive, it does suggest some implications that might strike a modern viewer as a bit tone deaf.
As a thriller alone, I could give Marathon Man a comfortable recommendation, but it’s the character work that really sets it apart. Hoffman, Scheider, and Olivier are all in top form, and their committed, nuanced performances kept me enthralled even through the slower parts of the story. The fact that it contains a cultural touchstone is the icing on the cake. If you’re a fan of any of these things, I’d definitely check Marathon Man out. It is safe. I promise.
Final Grade: A-
A good thriller buoyed great acting. Marathon Man works on multiple levels. Pick one.
Side Note: If you’re a fan of Assassin’s Creed, there may be a bit of unexpected inspiration in this movie. Just something I figured I’d mention if you were otherwise on the fence about watching.
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