Paranoia ran rampant in the 1970s – at least in American movie thrillers. Understandable perhaps, given that the decade had been kicked off by the brutal and senseless slayings of actress Sharon Tate and a houseful of guests in 1969; an unspeakable atrocity compounded by the vial executions of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca – all at the instigation of cult leader, Charles Manson. By mid-decade the cultural mood in the United States in general had shifted to disillusionment, particularly in the most concentrated city centers (New York, Chicago, L.A.) mirrored in the filth of urban decay rapidly matured by an imploding economy. In 1976, the year-long reign of terror perpetrated by David Berkowicz, better known as ‘son of Sam’, left many jaded, fearful and considering community vigilantism as their only counterattack, the police seemingly powerless to put a period to violent crime.
Movies are a product of their time and those made throughout the 1970s - with few exceptions - proved very unflattering reflections of America’s moral, social and cultural decline. The industry that had once fostered our collective dreams now seemed to relish catering to our most disenchanted hallucinations. Tales of being stalked, hunted, eavesdropped on, peeped through keyholes, spied with a pair of binoculars, investigated by rogue elements in the government, randomly assaulted by unknown – or worse, known – persons for no apparent good reason – such plot devices were not only prevalent but set the tone for a decade’s worth of dark thrillers, brooding dramas and some harrowing disaster and horror movies. According to the movies the world around us was a very scary place. Evil became mainstream and bankable box office; the anti-hero now the norm; perhaps our only hope to fight against this cesspool of spurious characters harboring salacious thoughts to maim murder and destroy.
Some very fine films were produced between 1970 and 1979 – the worst decade in terms of box office. Virtually all of them had an underpinning of uncertainty; the audience having turned, or at the very least become morbidly fascinated by this continuously eroding landscape reflected back at them from the screen. As for the industry of making movies – it was an even scarier time. Hollywood was in the throes of a collective malaise threatening to send even the most venerable companies into receivership. MGM, the biggest and brightest of the lot ceased operations altogether; becoming a glorified garage sale after its acquisition by Kirk Kerkorian. In the meantime, the other majors were embroiled in a corporate shell game; stakes, stocks and outright purchases made by conglomerates like Transamerica and Kinney Shoes – companies that had no interest, and frankly, no business investing in an industry they neither understood nor knew how to effectively run.
Perhaps nowhere else did the eulogizing of Hollywood hit so close to home than over at Paramount; a studio already at the precipice. Paramount’s savior, as it turned out, was a former male model cum actor cum studio production chief – Robert Evans; a man unencumbered by corporate haranguing, intuitively gifted and utterly invested in making the types of movies the public was willing to pay to see. Evans task, to resurrect Paramount from its’ current status as a virtual non-entity, and at a time when Gulf + Western, their holding company, was ready to lock its doors and throw away the key, was a last ditch effort that paid off handsomely; thanks to a series of box office dynamos beginning with 1970s Love Story and 1972’s The Godfather – two movies that almost didn’t get made. Given the overwhelming success of Chinatown (1974) Evans’ immediately went head-hunting for another thriller, deciding on William Goldman’s Marathon Man (1976) as a valiant successor.
Marathon Man is perhaps the pluperfect example of the American-made thriller of the 1970’s; extraordinarily bleak and unrelenting, methodically paced, expertly played by virtually all its principle cast (including Sir Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman, arguably the two most celebrated actors of their respective generations) and staged with sustained stealth by director John Schlesinger. Verisimilitude is the order of the day; partly in service to the cultural climate of the decade, but moreover to keep production costs down. Marathon Man was shot almost entirely under natural lighting conditions, Conrad Hall’s exceptionally dark and barren camera eye managing to bottle the impossibly rare and unsettling sense of foreboding so essential to the genre in general and 70’s thrillers in particular. Robert Evans has confessed that the project came together almost as though it were kismet; his first choices in cast and crew all coming true without so much as a conflict of interest. Marathon Man was, in fact, shot on two continents; its seemingly disjointed narrative converging on a diabolical plot about Nazi-diamond smuggling, murder, international intrigue and espionage.
William Goldman, the author was hired by Evans to write the screenplay, agreeing to minor changes to his literary fiction, including a revision of the climax. In the novel, marathon runner Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) shoots Nazi war criminal, Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) in cold blood as revenge for the murder of his brother, Henry ‘Doc’ (Roy Scheider), but also, perhaps, to get a little of his own back, having been tortured by Szell during the now infamous ‘Is it safe?’ dental examination sequence. In the film, Thomas tosses Szell’s stash of diamonds down a spiral staircase inside Central Park’s famed waterworks (actually a set built at Paramount), Szell greedily plummeting down the stairs after his gems only to accidentally impale himself on his own knife.
The film opens with a sepia tinted prologue of a long distance runner. We cut away to PhD. student Thomas Levy preparing his thesis on tyranny, in part to exonerate his late father of the McCarthy blacklist that led to the elder Levy taking his own life when Thomas was just a boy. Professor Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver) encourages Thomas to tread lightly and invest himself objectively on a topic in which he has no personal investment. Thomas takes Biesenthal’s suggestion under advisement – then does precisely what he wants.
At almost forty, Hoffman was decidedly much too old to play a college student, but remarkably managed to pull off twenty-something rather convincingly. Meanwhile, Thomas’ brother, Doc is in Paris presumably for work. Doc has lied about being an executive for an oil conglomerate. In actuality he is an international man of mystery working for Pete Janeway (William Devane) – a spy in a daisy chain that has been smuggling secrets out of France. Numerous attempts are made on Doc’s life, including a particularly brutal attack by Asian agent, Chen (James Wing Woo) inside Doc’s Parisian hotel suite.
But before any of these threads can be properly investigated, Schlesinger gives us an unsettling prologue. Szell’s brother (Ben Dova) is seen leaving a safety deposit box at a Brooklyn bank, sneaking a small consignment of diamonds in a talcum powder tin to a nondescript man waiting for him on the street. Confronted by a cantankerous old man, Szell’s brother dies in a fiery auto accident, forcing Szell, who has been in hiding somewhere in South America, to return to the U.S. in order to retrieve the rest of the diamonds. (Aside: those familiar with TV’s Fantasy Island 1977-1984 will immediately recognize Mr. Roarke’s palatial tropical retreat used herein as Szell’s South American hideaway: in actuality, Queen Anne Cottage located in L.A. County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia.)
While studying at the library, Thomas becomes enamored with Elsa (Marthe Keller); a Swiss foreign exchange student who makes every attempt to avoid his obvious glances and later completely rid herself of his awkward introductions after he has deliberately swiped one of her books as an excuse to follow her home. Elsa forewarns Thomas that nothing will come of their burgeoning ‘friendship’ but shortly thereafter the two become romantically involved. While strolling through Central Park the couple is assaulted by Szell’s henchmen, Erhard (Marc Lawrence) and Karl (Richard Bright). In the meantime, Doc tells his contact, Janeway that he is returning to the U.S. to stay with Thomas. Learning of Thomas’ mugging in the park and of the new love in his life, Doc decides to take his brother and Elsa out for dinner at the Plaza Hotel. But the mood turns sullen and contemptible when Doc exposes Elsa as a fraud by lying about having visited her home town, making up places and people that he supposedly met while on business there. She pretends to know the same places and people and Doc then informs her that nothing he has said is true. Elsa storms out of the dining room and Thomas chases after her.
In the meantime, Doc confronts Szell at a prearranged meeting. He knows that Szell’s men were behind Thomas’ mugging and Szell, realizing Doc as a liability, murders him with a knife concealed up his trench coat sleeve. Doc stumbles back to Thomas’ apartment and dies in his brother’s arms. The police are skeptical of Thomas. A short while later Thomas is visited by Pete Janeway who reveals the truth about Doc’s involvement in an international spy operation. Thomas refuses to believe it at first and orders Janeway out of his apartment. Not long thereafter Thomas is confronted by Karl and Erhard who bind and drag him to a remote warehouse where Szell – a former dentist - proceeds to probe for answers by inflicting severe pain on Thomas’ teeth.
Janeway bursts into the room, presumably to rescue Thomas. But as the two men speed away from the warehouse in Janeway’s getaway car, Janeway asks some probing questions of his own while spinning a yarn about Szell having come to America to collect his consignment of diamonds stolen from Jews murdered at Auschwitz years before. Thomas begins to suspect Janeway of also working for Szell; a suspicion confirmed when Janeway drives Thomas back to the warehouse, declaring to Szell and his men that he firmly believes Thomas doesn’t know anything.
Szell, still dissatisfied, proceeds to drill into a fresh nerve in Thomas’ front tooth before ordering Karl and Erhard to get rid of him and make it look like an accident. Instead, Thomas manages an escape; his training as a long distance runner coming in handy as he streaks through the dark and abandoned streets. Realizing that Szell’s men will be waiting for him back at his apartment Thomas gets his neighbor, Melendez (Tito Goya) and his street gang to break into his apartment to steal some clothes for him to wear. He makes his way to Elsa’s place and she, in turn, drives them both to an out of the way farmhouse she pretends belongs to one of her girlfriends.
In actuality, it is a stronghold owned by Szell’s late brother and the prearranged rendezvous where Elsa has agreed to take Thomas so that Szell’s men can murder him. Thomas has it out with Elsa who appears to have genuine affections for him. Janeway, Karl and Erhard arrive. But Thomas holds Elsa hostage, forcing the trio inside the house. After momentarily pretending to play along Janeaway kills Elsa and Thomas opens fire, shooting Janeway and his men dead.
In the meantime, Szell attempts an appraisal of his diamonds at a Manhattan jewelers run by a former concentration camp victim (Fred Struthman) who immediately identifies him. An elderly Jewish woman (Estelle Omen) begins to shout Szell’s name in the street. Her cries go unheeded by the crowd who think her mad and she is eventually struck by an oncoming taxi. Szell is confronted by the jeweler and slits the man’s throat before hurrying away. But only a few blocks from the crime scene Szell is confronted by Thomas who informs him at gunpoint that his henchmen are dead and forces Szell into the Central Park waterworks. Szell attempts to dazzle Thomas with his consignment of diamonds. Instead, Thomas takes Szell’s stash, tossing handfuls of the precious stones into the swirling waters below. He tells Szell that the only way he will be allowed to keep any of gems is by swallowing all he can, in fact, forcing Szell to eat a few of the diamonds before hurling the briefcase down a spiral staircase. Szell lunges to prevent the case from falling into the water, impaling himself on his own knife and dying. His revenge complete – though arguably, hardly sweet – Thomas skulks away and tosses his gun into the reservoir.
Marathon Man’s finale is ambiguous at best - another characteristic of 70’s film-making in general. At least in hindsight, it also manages to play very much like a contemporary Shakespearean tragedy. Hoffman and Olivier give ballast to Goldman’s screenplay with Roy Scheider, Marthe Keller and William Devane providing exceptional support. It’s a great cast, given great things to do and the movie is stealthily directed by Schlesinger who creates unease, foreboding and foreshadowing around every shadowy recess and darkened corner.
For years an incident on set has been circulated as fact about the rather tempestuous relationship between Olivier and Hoffman. The rumor was that Hoffman had confronted Olivier about his acting style being ‘too big’ and Olivier, after observing Hoffman in preparation for his role – using method techniques as his warm up – turned to Hoffman and said, “Why don’t you just try acting instead?”
In reality, Hoffman and director John Schlesinger had both decided that in a particular scene Olivier was reaching too hard to achieve the desired effect. While Schlesinger absolutely refused to confront Olivier, Hoffman – who equally regarded Olivier as one of the greatest actors of any generation - offered a polite ‘suggestion’ to Sir Laurence about the scene at which point Olivier graciously conceded that he too felt as though he hadn’t achieved what the scene required. Olivier actually thanked Hoffman with a congenial “Dear boy.”
As for Olivier’s comment about Hoffman trying ‘acting instead’ – while the truth of the matter is that the line was said, it was not uttered condescendingly and was, in fact, preceded by some fairly jovial banter between the two co-stars about acting in general. It was not an admonishment of Hoffman’s talents in particular.
More confrontational – at least for a time – was the relationship between Hoffman and Marthe Keller who spoke not a word of English at the start of the shoot and had to learn virtually all of her lines phonetically in order to play a scene. At one point Hoffman goaded Keller into playing the sequence at the country house his way, forcing her to ramp up her performance with some constant badgering. Much later Keller would regard this moment as ‘a gift’ but at the time it generated more than a few tears of frustration and a mutual contempt that would eventually cool.
Marathon Man is one of the best American thrillers ever made. After its New York premiere a sequence in which Doc murders a double agent was cut when the audience collectively walked out declaring it as gruesomely violent filth. There was even some contemplation amongst the heads of the studio whether or not to excise Szell’s dental torture of Thomas when it was discovered audiences were turning their heads away from the screen and in some cases leaving the theater momentarily, only to return to see the rest of the picture. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and the sequence remained intact.
The violence in Marathon Man seems tame by comparison to today’s grotesque affinity for ever-increasing amounts of it splashed across our movie screens. And yet, the action in the movie is no less potent for being restrained. There is nothing to touch the bone-chilling suspense in the movie; particularly the moment when Doc discovers that his contact in the diamond smuggling operation (Jean Rougerie) has been garroted in his box at the Paris opera, or the moment when Doc and Chen brutally fight to the death inside Doc’s suite, the confrontation ending when Doc snaps Chen’s neck. These are tour de force moments of sustained sadism, the bloodshed remarkably kept in check, the ferocity derived from Schlesinger’s brilliant choices in staging and later made in the editing process. In the last analysis, Marathon Man is a superior effort, a spectacular thrill ride that really holds up and holds its own despite our ever-changing times.
I can say the same about Paramount’s gorgeous hi-def transfer. Released through their distribution deal with Warner Home Video, the mastering effort exhibits exceptional clarity. Conrad Hall’s understated cinematography looks spectacular. Ultimately, Marathon Man was never meant to look razor-sharp or pristine. This Blu-ray offers us a very faithful interpretation of the original theatrical engagement. The understated palette is perfectly rendered. Colors are subdued but refined, flesh tones quite natural and appealing throughout. Film grain has been very accurately reproduced. Contrast levels are bang on. The ‘wow’ factor is in evidence. Fantastic stuff!
Paramount has remastered the original mono in DTS 5.1 but has also included the ‘restored mono’. There is, in fact, very little difference between these two tracks, the studio remaining faithful to the original sound mix with only the subtlest hints of stereo in Conrad Hall’s music and effects track. Marathon Man doesn’t require anything more and in either sound edit the movie sounds as good as it looks. Extras are all direct imports from Paramount’s previous DVD release. These include a vintage ‘shooting the movie’ featurette and a rather fascinating retrospective produced two decades later and running just under thirty minutes. We also get a test reel of rehearsals and the original theatrical trailer. I would have loved an audio commentary besides but overall, this Blu-ray is a wonderful way to appreciate this film. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)