by Mel Valentin
With the country reeling from the Watergate scandal and the subsequent resignation of President Nixon in 1974, Hollywood film producers tuned into the zeitgeist adapted popular political novels for the big screen (e.g., "Three Days of the Condor," "The Parallax View," "All the President’s Men," and "Marathon Man"). Only "All the President’s Men," which dealt with the investigation of the Watergate scandal by "Washington Post" reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, was based on actual events. The other three novels and subsequent adaptations instead dealt with the underlying malaise and deep-seated pessimism toward the American government (especially an uncontrolled, uncontrollable executive branch). "Marathon Man" has the least obvious political critique, but nonetheless reflected overlapping concerns, fears, and anxieties found in post-Watergate America.Marathon Man follows Thomas 'Babe' Levy (Dustin Hoffman), a Ph.D. student in history at Columbia University and his older brother, Henry 'Doc' Levy (Roy Scheider), an operative for a super-secret intelligence agency known only as the “Division.” As a cover, Doc pretends to be an oil company executive and Doc hides his double life from Babe. At Columbia, Babe takes a seminar under his father’s old student, Professor Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver). He struggles with the topic of his Ph.D. dissertation, “tyranny in American political life” and his father’s suicide as a result of the mid-1950s Communist witch hunts orchestrated by Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. Doc travels to Paris as a courier on a mission for his boss, Peter Janeway (William Devane). There, Doc narrowly avoids a public bombing, meets a soon-murdered contact, LeClerc (Jacques Marin), and survives an assassination attempt.
"Slow-build political conspiracy thrillers don't get any better."
Thomas begins to date Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller), a Swiss history student. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), a Josef Mengele-like, ex-Nazi war criminal living under an assumed name in Uruguay, travels to Manhattan to recover the diamonds his now-dead brother, Klaus (Ben Dova), kept in a safety deposit box. Only Christian and his brother had keys to the safety deposit box. Entering the United States comes at great risk to Szell. While he’s afraid someone in the U.S. government will steal his diamonds, he also risks discovery. Due to his connection to Doc, Janeway and Szell draw Babe into their plots and machinations. Desperate to uncover any plots against him, Szell and his two henchmen, Karl (Richard Bright) and Erhard (Marc Lawrence), kidnap Babe and, in Marathon Man’s most famous scene, performs unwanted dentistry on Babe while repeatedly asking, “Is it safe?” Even Erhard flinches away in fear and disgust when Szell begins his work.
From one perspective, with Babe as the main character, the “inciting incident” doesn’t occur until Babe stumbles into his apartment after meeting Szell. For Doc, the “inciting incident” occurs in Paris, when he narrowly escapes two attempts on his life. For Szell, the “inciting incident” occurs much earlier, with the death of his brother in a traffic accident. Seen as three, overlapping, inevitably converging storylines (unsurprising, given Marathon Man’s origin as a novel), then the slow-build first hour makes more sense, at least for viewers or readers willing to see novelist-screenwriter William Goldman’s (The Princess Bride, All the President's Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sunshine Kid) non-conventional adaptation of his own novel, minus the three-act structure followed by the vast majority of Hollywood films.
Marathon Man has practically everything a 70s suspense-thriller should have: a rogue government agency, a Nazi war criminal (inspired by Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” known for performing cruel, sadistic medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners), double agents (and double dealing), mistaken identities, and tortured (literally and metaphorically) protagonist, Marathon Man looks, at least superficially, like a standard suspense thriller, but it’s not. Marathon Man can be (and has been) described as a political thriller or, better yet, a paranoid conspiracy thriller (just because you think everyone’s out to get you doesn’t mean they aren’t). While does definitions work for Marathon Man, it’s also a slow-build character drama where plot, at least initially, takes second place to character building.
Although director John Schlesinger (The Falcon and the Snowman, The Day of the Locust, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Midnight Cowboy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Darling , Billy Liar) and screenwriter William Goldman’s (The Princess Bride, All the President's Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sunshine Kid) deserve praise for their willingness to integrate contemporary concerns into the suspense-thriller genre, they also deserve criticism for the cringe-worthy, caricatured depiction of Latinos. As a poor graduate student, Babe lives in a rundown apartment building in an economically depressed Latino neighborhood. One of his neighbors, Melendez (Tito Goya), call him “creepy,” primarily because he runs regularly and otherwise treat him as an outsider. While they’re initially depicted as non-dangerous, Babe later relies on their in breaking and entering “skills” to help get him out of a jam. While the scene adds some much-needed humor, it also sadly suggests that Latinos (presumably Puerto Ricans) are (a) always well-armed, and (b) willing to break in and enter an apartment at the crack of dawn with only a moment’s notice.Production wise, it’s hard to go wrong with a cast that includes Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, Marthe Keller, and William Devane, Goldman’s multi-layered screenplay, and Schlesinger’s gritty, cinéma vérité-inspired direction ("Marathon Man" was one of the first films to use a Steadicam and the first to be released theatrically). If "Marathon Man" hasn’t satiated your appetite for 70s-era conspiracy thrillers, then definitely give "The Parallax View," "Three Days of the Condor," and "All the President’s Men" a chance. While not a political conspiracy thriller per se, Francis Ford Coppola’s "The Conversation," also deserves mention (and viewing).
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originally posted: 03/11/09 06:21:02