Marathon Man (1976) starring Dustin Hoffman … Remembered

mar9I was looking for a thriller and Marathon Man (1976) fits the bill.  It has a cast of well-known legends and a great script.  It stars Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier, who are both embroiled in a conspiracy.  I had never seen Lawrence Olivier in a modern film like this one, but it is a real treat, as is his performance.  I had never heard of this film until researching political thrillers and it is a shame that the movie has been largely forgotten.  It has action, good dialogue, and none of the melodrama or over-the-top effects you might expect from a film trying too hard to impress.  It is maybe a little heavy for some people, as the movie really turns the screws on Dustin Hoffman and turns up the suspense big time.

mar1The film opens with a man on a run, who is haunted by memories of his father, a marathon runner.  The movie intercuts that with a few minutes of an old man opening a safe-deposit box at a city bank.  The music churns mysteriously as the old man hands off a package he found in the box to an unknown passer-by.  He is German and it is obvious he is a shady guy.

mar2The old man gets stuck in traffic and an angry driver tails him for stopping in the road.  They both crash into a fuel truck and it explodes.  At this point, I don’t know who any of the characters are, but Dustin Hoffman comes upon the crash as he is running.  He makes nothing of it and runs back through the neighborhood to get home.  He listens to the TV and learns about the German man’s connection to an infamous Nazi war criminal named Szell.

The movie is short on details, but has great shots and a moving, city pace.  Roy Scheider plays an investigator or secret agent or something.  It is not really clear.  He has some French contacts and is followed by mysterious forces.  There are shots of people’s feet to build suspense.  It is generic like that, but believe me, it gets a little better.

Thomas (Dustin Hoffman) visits his Professor at Columbia and we finally get some backstory about his character.  His Professor warns him to not turn his doctoral thesis into a crusade, as he plans to write about the McCarthy investigation of his father.  I like this scene and it shows Thomas at his most innocent and unknowing, like most fresh-faced students.  Hoffman plays it well.  I can tell he is already on that crusade though and I think this is what the movie is about.  The emotional crusade of Thomas is a central theme and the movie seems to want to convince us that he is running from his past, perhaps even purposefully avoiding obvious truths.

The film is a period piece, so you’ll be lost if you don’t know who McCarthy is, how Jewish people from the war might react to Nazis,  and what impact the post-World War II era had on society.  Roy Scheider is undercover in Europe and waist deep in all these things, finding murder and deception at every corner.  It is almost a little too much, but I like how most of the evil forces against him are nameless and unknown, which gives the movie an aura of mystery and adds to the suspense.

Olivier adds a face to that evil in Dr. Szell and plays his role as staunch and professional as any paid torturer put to film.  I was hoping Hoffman and Olivier would interact heavily.  Olivier plays it reluctantly, as if his character doesn’t want to be there.  He won a Golden Globe for this role and it shows, as his ability to show emotion and carry a scene is great.

mar3Thomas meets a woman named Elsa and they start seeing each other.  However, there is more to Elsa than meets the eye.  Thomas’ brother can see it right away, but Thomas himself can’t.  That’s the innocence part of him showing through again.  I’m not sure what to think about this part of his character, but looking at the movie as a whole, the movie argues that innocence or naivety can easily be abused.  Thomas ends up getting stepped on, tortured, and manipulated by everyone in this movie, so I guess I can’t begrudge him a little vengeance later on.  Even his brother doesn’t tell him the truth.

mar5A good scene takes place near the middle of the movie between the two brothers, Thomas and Henry, played by Scheider.  It is obvious everyone is hiding something, even Thomas, even though he is the most innocent.  Henry is hiding his real profession from his brother, Elsa is hiding her background, and Thomas is running from his feelings about his father.  

mar6Szell kills Henry after a short confrontation and this is the beginning of the most suspenseful part of the movie carried by Olivier.  I didn’t actually expect to see the great stage actor Lawrence Olivier stab somebody to death.  

Thomas is captured and Szell tortures him.  The torture scenes are seriously the most traumatic scenes of the whole movie.  It involves dentistry, that’s all I’ll say.  Olivier stares at him blankly and keeps asking him “Is it safe?”.  Thomas doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about, so ends up a real victim here, unable to comply or give them what they want.  Thomas is rescued by one of the authorities we met earlier, but he just takes him back to Szell.  Thomas ends up back in the torture chair, where he started.   What a neat little twist there. 

Thomas gets an opportunity to run away and has flashbacks of his father competing in a marathon.  I was hoping the allusion to running would go a little deeper than an ability to run from criminals.  Anyway, Thomas tries to make it around the city in just his pajamas and has to rely on his scumbag neighbors to get him some supplies.  Finally, Elsa comes to get him and the movie slows down a bit.  Just a bit though, because seeing what Hoffman has been put through is really wearing on him.  And me!

mar7The final confrontation between Hoffman and Olivier is pretty tense, but doesn’t match the middle of the movie.  Thomas tracks down Szell, obviously on a quest for vengeance,  so I’m not sure what that says about our hero.  He doesn’t shoot him or anything, but does force him to swallow one of his diamonds, valuables Szell desperately wants to get out of New York.  Thomas takes the briefcase of stolen diamonds and taunts him before throwing them in a reservoir.   Olivier falls on his knife as he tries to retrieve them.  Hoffman walks off.  Some lonely trumpet plays.  Yay, I guess.

 All in all, I would have to say that this movie was more intense than I was expecting.  Dustin Hoffman is obviously a great actor and wears his emotions on his sleeve in this one.  Olivier gives an aura of professionalism to the film and does a good job.  This film has political themes that might be unfamiliar to some people and the torture scenes also might put people off.  I thought they upped the suspense though and didn’t really show anything anyway, so I didn’t mind.  The music and the scenery are fairly generic, so the performances had to standout for this movie to be memorable.  I think it does a good job rising to the top of the thriller genre.  Lastly, I think the themes of running from problems and the politics fit pretty well together, but my only complaint is that Thomas is pretty naive in nature.

Thomas has no idea his brother is a secret agent, he gets involved with a lying woman, and gets stepped on by everyone else.  I didn’t see any real development of his character because of all these things, but Thomas doesn’t become a killer at the end, so I can only assume the events didn’t shake him of his true character, after all.  We can only imagine how strong he will be in the future, but he throws his gun away at the end, so maybe that signifies a stronger change.  The picture merely alludes to this change though, which is a better way of doing it, I think.  Either way, this movie is worth a watch for Lawrence Olivier as a torturer and to see a young Dustin Hoffman giving it his all.


Stay tuned for more political or conspiracy thrillers!