Marathon Man is a mixture of several types of genres with no one genre dominating the others. At times it’s a horror films, at others a drama and/or a psychological thriller. In every way it’s an electrifying story of good triumphing over evil, a Jewish retribution film where the Nazis get their comeuppance. The acting from stars Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier and Roy Scheider is just another element in the delicious mix that is Marathon Man; I thoroughly enjoyed this movie!
Babe Levy (Hoffman) is training to be a marathon runner while studying for his Master’s Degree. His brother Doc (Scheider) is a government operative trying to smoke out the escaped Nazi physician Dr. Szell (Olivier). When Doc goes to visit his brother, Szell and his associates assume Babe has knowledge involving a diamond horde. Babe is put in a position that forces him to fight for his life and face his past, a past involving his father.
I’m not quite sure why but in the 70s the film world seemed fascinated in telling stories about bringing Nazis’ to justice (I cite this as well as the 1978 film The Boys From Brazil and the Nazisploitation market throughout the 70s). Google didn’t appear to give me an answer so I’ll throw it out there to my film history friends and/or older moviegoers…what was the appeal of Nazis in the 70s? I’m under the assumption some high level members were possibly apprehended in the 70s but I’m open to hearing more about the subject.
Regardless, the world of Marathon Man is one of discourteous behavior and violence. The opening plays a radio program where the top headlines are a bread strike and a man murdering his family with a machete. Kids run in the street hitting taxi cabs and there’s an actual car chase in the opening minutes between two old men, one a German spewing anti-Semitism and another Jewish. It’s obvious from the start that the wounds of WWII and the Holocaust have not healed and taking place in a melting pot like New York puts these two groups into conflict everyday. You don’t expect a gritty car chase in the opening ten minutes although you are expecting these two men to get into something bad. When the car chase ends in both men dying in an accident, the message is that violence simply begets more violence. That the fact is that in 1976, two men in their twilight years can’t forgive or forget and where does that leave the state of humanity?
The beginning of this film appears to be inconsequential, and in many ways it just creaks open the door to the main story. The true story follows the divergent paths of Babe and Doc Levy. One character (Babe) struggles to live a normal life and reconcile his father’s disgraced past with the present, while another (Doc) is a secret agent of sorts trying to take down the bad guys. See what I mean about this film mixing genres? Our main character is Babe, a man who tries to hide his intelligence despite following the same path as his father. He both adores and despises his dad and his degree progress is the way for him to, hopefully, redeem his father. While Hoffman is far too old to convincingly play a graduate student he hooked my attention as Babe. There’s a line where Babe equates runners as those who “don’t give in to pain” and by the end of this movie that’s Babe all the way. The torture and suffering Babe endures throughout the film’s two-hour runtime can only be held up against the Holocaust, forcing Babe to relive the traumatic events of his ancestors. It’s a harsh role for an actor to take on but Hoffman succeeds!
Next to Hoffman is Laurence Olivier as Dr. Szell. IMDB mentions that this is the second time Olivier played a Nazi doctor, both roles hearkening back to real doctor Joseph Mengele who was in hiding during the production (the other being the aforementioned Boys From Brazil). Olivier doesn’t portray Szell as a mustache-twirling, deranged “supervillain” like you’d expect; it would be extremely easy for this character to devolve into caricature. Instead Olivier plays the character, referred to as “the White Angel” in certain scenes, with an elegance and grace. He doesn’t torture in a bloody sense, his methods are remarkably clean (and EXTREMELY painful).
I included the infamous “is it safe” scene that this film is noted for but I recommend being confident in your dentist because after watching the clip, you’ll be terrified to get your teeth cleaned. You experience a bodily reaction watching Szell drill into Babe’s teeth, and you don’t even see any blood or actual drilling, all that’s needed is the sound effect. Szell himself is representative of a dying breed of hatred and ignorance and the fact that he’s come out of hiding to gain the last of his wealth makes his actions feel all the more desperate. Yet there’s a sadness, a feeling of history repeating itself as he walks down the street to the bank and an old Jewish woman starts screaming at him.
She’s recognized him for his atrocities and your heart breaks as people just assume she’s crazy and/or ignore her. The new generation has cast aside traumatic events as separate from the present, evocative of “back in the day” or stories old people tell to make the young appreciate life. While the ending feels a bit too Hollywood for my taste, and original author William Goldman wasn’t pleased with it, it does give resolution and triumph to the story that the Jewish descendants of the Holocaust have avenged their relatives.
A few other things to look at. I’m not one to analyze sound, composition, and/or architecture in films but there are some gorgeous uses of sound and composition in Marathon Man. The horror elements are truly unpredictable due to how they’re set up and filmed. In one scene Doc goes to meet a contact at the opera. He goes up to the man and before we meet the contact we know he’s dead because of how the scene is filmed, the man is just shown to the side of the camera with Doc’s face dominating.
You know the man is dead but it’s not till he leans forward that you jump and the horror hits you. There are several scenes equal to that first moment like the way a lace curtain flattens around an assassin’s face right before Doc is attacked. Between those and the “is it safe” sequence above, this is easily a horror film that work superbly. The architecture is also beautiful shot contrasting the old Gothic buildings with new, bright geometric structures obviously meant to show how New York has changed not just in people but in the way the city is perceived. The sound effects also give you those audible responses, they stimulate the senses.
I mentioned the drill sounds above but even smaller moments use sound to give certain moments the weight they deserve. Case in point is how a zipper being zipped is louder than the surrounding dialogue. An important character dies and with that loud zipper sound we’re harshly closing the book on his story.
I do want to give a quick shout-out to my favorite part of the film: Mr. Roy Scheider! He is freaking amazing as Doc and his scenes are ripped from the James Bond school of action films. There’s a brutal fight sequence he has with an assassin and only Scheider could fight in nothing but a tiny pair of shorts and make it look awesome! I saw All That Jazz a few years ago and no one told me Chief Brody from Jaws could have sex appeal but he does and Marathon Man goes up there next to ATJ as one of my favorite Scheider performances!
Marathon Man is wonderful from the story to its message and the trifecta of performances including Hoffman, Olivier and Scheider. No matter what type of genre you’re in the mood for Marathon Man has it (even romance!). Go out and see it and be sure to know ahead of time if “it’s safe.”
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.