I was saddened at the loss of Roy Scheider, always a tremendously underrated actor, and decided to revisit some of his movies. One of those is Marathon Man – a taut, intelligent little thriller that’s all but forgotten today save for its notorious torture-by-dentistry scene. It’s too bad the film is so overlooked, because it’s got an intelligent plot, strong performances, and nifty plot twists.
The movie begins with two seemingly unrelated stories. Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a history grad student who trains for marathon running when he’s not in class. Despite the daily taunts he gets from the local kids and a lodging furnished in Squalor Contemporary, Babe’s life is looking up – he’s gotten into a coveted seminar and has just landed an improbably hot Swiss girlfriend. The other story concerns Scylla (Roy Scheider), an agent for a government agency known only as “Division”, who is getting uneasy about the recent murders and disappearances of fellow agents. Uneasiness becomes paranoia when Scylla survives two assassination attempts and realizes the common thread is a former Nazi named Szell (Sir Laurence Olivier).
The storylines converge when Szell leaves his South American haunts and when Scylla is revealed to be Babe’s brother. Soon afterward, Babe finds himself in a nightmarish situation where he can trust no one.
I won’t reveal any more of the story, which was expertly adapted by William Goldman from his own novel. Suffice to say that there are some surprises in store for characters and audience alike.
What makes Marathon Man so suspenseful is the all-pervading paranoia the three major characters feel. Few movies show the effects of fear on men, let alone on intelligent, resourceful men. Babe is the character the audience most identifies with, and his paranoia is the clearest – when he gets pulled into his brother’s world he’s at a disadvantage because he knows nothing of what’s happening and can’t give the information people seek, even under torture. Scylla is established early on as an experienced agent, so when he understands the old rules don’t apply any longer, the audience knows this is serious business. Even Szell, the fearsomely intelligent, arrogant Nazi, is not immune – there’s a scene in NYC’s diamond district when Szell realizes too late that any Jew of a certain age might know his true identity.
What Marathon Man is most remembered for today is its infamous dental torture scene. The sequence (actually broken into two separate scenes) is remarkable in that it’s far briefer than I’d remembered, and that virtually nothing is shown but much is implied. Olivier’s repetition of “Is it safe?” is far more chilling than standard evil villain posturing. Eli Roth and pals, take note!
What lifts the film above standard thriller fare is Goldman’s screenplay, which takes the time to set up the story elements and doesn’t dumb itself down. It requires the audience to pay attention and put the puzzle pieces together without big hunks of exposition. Bringing intelligence and class to the proceedings are the cast – all excellent. Hoffman, though by his own admission too old for the role, is a perfect combination of intelligence and naivete. He also has a remarkable scene when he’s trapped in his apartment’s tiny bathroom and completely vulnerable to the attackers he can hear on the other side of the door . Lord Larry is amazing as Szell the Nazi, perfectly capturing the character’s unbridled arrogance and cruelty. And Scheider does what he did so well in his 1970s heyday – he brings intelligence and humanity to what could have been a standard tough-guy role.
A nice set of extras includes two featurettes, one from when the movie was released in 1976 and one for the DVD release, as well as a trailer and rehearsal footage showing Hoffman and Olivier.
By all means, give the movie a view. Just don't do so before your next root canal.