As Turner Classic Movies winds down its annual 31 Days of Oscar festival, last night son #2 and I (son #1 hit the sack early; took SATS today; my God, I’m getting old) caught up with “Marathon Man,” a film I hadn’t seen since my junior year in college.
As anyone who’s seen it can attest, once you’ve seen “Marathon Man” you’re unlikely to ever forget it, if only for the “Is it safe?” scene. In that famous scene, Laurence Olivier gives Dustin Hoffman an impromptu checkup, sans Novocain, in order to determine whether Hoffman knows anything about what will transpire when Olivier – a Nazi war criminal – visits the bank the following day in order to retrieve a hidden cache of diamonds. It’s not what you would call a “fun” scene – in fact, at one point even one of the evil henchmen turns his back, not wanting to watch what is about to transpire.
The scene wasn’t quite as bad as I remembered (but just hearing the drill makes your teeth hurt in sympathy), but the film was much better than I remembered. One of several “paranoid thrillers” that cropped up in the 1970s, it’s sort of what “North by Northwest” might have been like, had it been made shortly after the Watergate affair. It’s got all the same elements – the innocent guy (Hoffman) who gets caught up in intrigue by accident, and never has any idea what is going on; the shady American spies (Roy Scheider and William Devane, both outstanding) who aren’t really good guys or bad guys but somewhere in between; the blonde girl who fits in somehow but you’re never quite clear how; and the evil guys with foreign accents (Olivier, joined by among others Richard Bright, who played Al Neri in The Godfather movies). The plot moves forward with solid pacing, but at times is close to incomprehensible. You’re never quite sure exactly what Scheider and Devane are up to, but that just adds to the eerie, almost claustrophobic feel of the film (as does the somewhat strange score). You end up feeling as disoriented as Hoffman, and wondering how to get out of the trap you've fallen in.
All of the actors are outstanding, including Hoffman, who has never been one of my favorites. He doesn’t look much like a marathon runner, but he convincingly portrays his character’s transformation from naïve innocence to survival to a thirst for revenge. Olivier is iconic, and as previously mentioned, Scheider and Devane are both outstanding.
All in all, the film has held up well over the years. It’s not an entirely pleasant ride, but it superbly portrays the distrust of government which was so prevalent in those post-Nixon years.