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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 30.61%
Average: 12.24%
Pretty Bad: 4.08%
Total Crap: 14.29%

3 reviews, 31 user ratings

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Marathon Man
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by Jay Seaver

"Down-to-earth seventies thrills at their best."
5 stars

Not many thrillers these days start with the sort of slow burn we see in the first act of "Marathon Man". The obvious comparison is right there in the title - marathon runners have to keep up a steady pace rather than run the risk of burning themselves out - but just because it's obvious doesn't make it any less true.

The movie does get a good jump at the starter's line, when an old German and an old Jew clash at a traffic light, leading to a frantic chase and a fatal result. After that, he film introduces us to some new characters, not immediately connected to the open: Thomas (Dustin Hoffman), nicknamed "Babe", is a graduate student in history haunted by his father's suicide; he's just met a nice girl (Marthe Keller) in the library. Henry (Roy Scheider) and Peter (William Devane) are operatives for an unnamed agency; right now they're in Europe. Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) is a Nazi war criminal who has been living in Uruguay for the past thirty years. An attack on Henry's life alerts them that something's up, which will have them all converging on New York.

There are a couple action beats in the movie's first half, and they're fairly brutal fights you would not want to be in. Mostly, it's a slow and deliberate examination of Babe's and Henry's worlds. We see the punks in Babe's crappy neighborhood laugh at him as he trains for marathons and the tradecraft Henry uses. We can't quite be sure that Henry's one of the good guys, even when we see that there's a connection between him and Babe. It's not until Szell arrives in New York that things start to get nasty.

And they do get fantastically nasty. The scene that most people remember (or know without ever having seen the movie) is Olivier torturing Hoffman with dentists' instruments. It's a cringe-worthy moment that draws upon how nervous trips to the dentist make a lot of people; that the Nazis' most feared and effective torturer was one makes a certain amount of sense at a gut level. It's just one of several well-constructed, nerve-wracking sequences, though; I was particularly fond of one that leads up to it, Babe cornered in his bathroom and Szell's men battering down the door; Director John Schlesinger uses a lot of cuts, as the camera frantically searches for a way out while also showing us the fear on Babe's face and the door shaking on its hinges, but seldom (if ever) leaves the room. It's all about a small space getting smaller.

Schlesinger and writer William Goldman are quite businesslike throughout; even as Babe finds himself plunged into unusual and dangerous situations, there's always the sense that this is business as usual for some of the characters. Goldman peppers the script with little details that may or may not be important, and while there may not be a lot of memorable, quotable lines, there's a matter-of-fact simplicity to the way everyone interacts. Schlesinger, meanwhile, does a fine job of grounding what seems like a somewhat far-fletched plot in the gritty, somewhat dangerous New York of the 1970s. He holds the camera a little further away than some might, letting the audience see that this story is taking place in something like the real world.

That's something that he and cinematographer Conrad Hall might not be able to do now - an R-rated movie in the pre-VHS 1970s didn't have to think about how it would look on TV, either in terms of having the sides cut off or being shrunk down so that characters in a large environment would be reduced to a small blur. Consider the scene where Babe and Szell confront each other in a sewage plant; it's a big, two-tier space, and there's some distance between them. I don't know if people would frame it that way with video and television in the backs of their minds.

Anyway - the characters aren't given a lot of speeches; they just do their thing while making it clear that it's not exactly easy. Dustin Hoffman's Babe appears to be a soft, nebbishy academic, even after we know he's training for a marathon. We do eventually believe in his endurance, but Hoffman also sells it being hard, at the edge of what this guy is capable of. Scheider and Devane hit the right tones as shadowy government agents - they're corporate slick, always giving the impression that there's things they aren't saying, even when the topic is personal rather than professional. Olivier plays his part a little more broadly - Szell is a somewhat self-aware monster, less someone who gets joy from hurting others than a man who has had the part of his brain that cares about others switched off. Nearly seventy at the time the film was made, his Szell shows his age but always displays cunning and capability to the audience, even though we cna believe other people in the movie's world missing it.

"Marathon Man" is a nifty thriller, mostly because it takes advantage of the seventies' much-praised grit and realism but doesn't see them as ends unto themselves: They ground the story, and heighten the tension, giving the audience a thriller that's plenty nerve-wracking without exaggerating the stakes.

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originally posted: 06/26/07 08:13:11
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User Comments

11/28/18 Anne Had enough after an hour 2 stars
2/01/11 David A. Zzzzzzzzzzz!!!!! (That's the sound of the drill going into Dustin Hoffman's teeth!) 4 stars
12/31/10 Dave Excellent! Laurence Olivier gives me nightmares! 5 stars
12/10/08 Jack Burton It has some cool moments and a strong atmosphere. Plot a little hard to follow at times. 3 stars
3/02/08 Pamela White overrated story and acting 3 stars
2/11/07 action movie fan excellent thriller!! so many good things about it> one of the best of 76 5 stars
5/23/06 tatum Stunningly overrated; big dental torture scenes are about ten seconds each 2 stars
1/01/06 goatfarmer this is DH at his best. Totally convincing. Icy performance by LO 5 stars
10/30/05 R.W.Welch Kafkaesque nightmare pic has perfect cast and near flawless direction. Bordering awesome. 4 stars
3/27/05 Jack Sommersby Logic-impaired but undeniably nerve-frying. Top-notch directing and acting. 4 stars
11/28/04 Jim Stowe I can'telieve the folks who didn't like this film! Too much plot, perhaps? 5 stars
6/03/04 Jacob West Not bad...the first time. 2nd time and your bored. 3 stars
11/29/03 john intense and violent..a true edge of your seat thriller - brilliant script! 5 stars
9/28/03 Alan Winterdumb describes the ending and says, "After this, you might as well stop watching." 4 stars
4/25/03 mr. Pink Has some memorable and exciting moments, but the plot is very weak. 3 stars
2/13/03 r. dassow Whoever wintermute is, he/she/it is a moron 5 stars
11/20/02 Joseph Kettering A really great spy movie. A classic in the genre. 4 stars
9/02/02 y2mckay OK spy thriller with Dustin Hoffman vs. old Nazi war criminals. Dentist drill torture - BAD 3 stars
8/14/02 Ramblin' Wreck Great movie!! 5 stars
8/29/01 Monster W. Kung A very enjoyable, very well done spy story. 4 stars
8/07/01 Jaan Well-made and stylish movie with decent perfomances, a thriller heaven! 5 stars
5/14/01 Aaron Hanson A very good film, but by today's standards very slow, younger viewers will probably dislike 5 stars
4/11/01 Tommy Thompson Shows how organizations can be displayed in movies to broaden the spectrum of the plot. 5 stars
3/29/01 Thurmes Guy rather good film 4 stars
2/04/01 mouton Amazing edge of your seat thriller. One of the best in the genre 5 stars
7/31/00 Matthew Bartley Excellent thriller. Very scary in parts 5 stars
5/31/00 Add Its biggest crime is in under using Olivier and over using Hoffman but worth your time. 4 stars
7/04/99 J-Dogg The only reason I like this film is too see all the torture scenes in it. 4 stars
5/03/99 Michael Grimm BORRRRRRIIIIIINNNNNGGGGGG!!!!!! 1 stars
12/31/98 Todd Is it safe? 5 stars
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  06-Oct-1976 (R)

  N/A (18)
  DVD: 07-Mar-2002

  10-Feb-1977 (M)

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