Sunday 2 March 2008

Marathon Man (1976)

It's Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. One old man in New York puts something into a safety deposit box and another has to get to Queens. soon they both hit a fuel tanker and that's the end of them. Jogging nearby is a graduate student called Thomas Levy, played by Dustin Hoffman, and he's the marathon man of the title. The link between the two is that the first old man (who in real life had the bad luck to be called Ben Dova, the good luck to surive the explosion of the Hindenburg and the bad luck to be suspected of causing the explosion) is the brother of notorious Nazi Christian Szell, handed over something to Henry Levy, Thomas's eldest brother, played by Roy Scheider.

The trail quickly leads to murder, bombs and intrigue. It doesn't take long for an attempt to be made on Henry Levy's life and it doesn't take much longer for a second and a third. All are powerful, believable and very nicely shot. As you'd expect, given that Hoffman is the star of the film, the problems spread from Henry to Thomas, who gets mugged by henchmen of Christian Szell. With the loss of his brother, Szell deliberately travels from safety into danger, stopping at nothing to get what he wants. Given that he's played by no less an actor than Laurence Olivier his search gets seriously intense, that intensity including the notorious dentist scene which is certainly powerful but not as nasty as I expected it to be.

The real intensity comes later for me, towards the end of the film, with a notorious Nazi from Auschwitz wandering around the Jewish diamond markets of New York. These scenes are pure genius, amazingly intense and the stuff that only the very best thrillers are made of. Here's where Olivier's awesome talent shines through. It's also a real slice of life in the seventies: traffic problems, street musicians, organised protests, bad manners, baggage handler strikes, you name it. Actors like William Devane even have seventies faces, half sleazy politician and half future Grecian 2000 commercial.

I've been catching up on seventies thrillers over the last few years and I've been mightily impressed. I've seen many of them before but only as a kid, often so young that I can't even remember which I've seen and which I haven't. I'm finding that many of them are real and believable and the product of people who knew what they wanted to put on the screen. I don't really know which films are the product of the studios admitting that they didn't have a clue any more after the end of the Production Code and which are the studios starting to get a clue again.

Much of the credit has to go to William Goldman, one of the biggest screenwriters in the business, who wrote both the story and the source novel it's based on so he knew exactly what he wanted to see on the screen. The director is John Schlesinger, a major name in the seventies who had already helmed a few classics including Midnight Cowboy starring Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman, always a method actor, went to great lengths to be believable, as demonstrated in major scenes like the bathtub scene or the running scenes, but also in smaller touches like the way he keeps his tongue moving over his teeth or the look he gives Szell when he knows what's about to come. He may just have been outshone here though by Olivier and his scenes in the diamond district.

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