Marathon Man (1976)

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*. This was widely seen as a can’t-miss project, with Hollywood’s hottest hot-shot producer, a bestselling novel by a master screenwriter who adapted it himself, a terrific cast including rising stars and one living legend, an Oscar-winning director . . . what could go wrong?
*. Well, not much did. I think this is a splendid thriller, and it’s always been a personal favourite. But it doesn’t fulfil all of its potential, and if I had to answer why I’d look first to John Schlesinger.
*. Material like this needs style. Lots of style. It needs a look that fits its tense, complex plot and subject matter. And to be fair, Schlesinger tries for style. You can see it everywhere: the soccer ball bouncing out of the darkness, the doll in the baby carriage opening its eyes and exploding, the man in the wheelchair witnessing the fight from across the street through the bloody curtain. These are signature moments.

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*. But you can only see Schlesinger trying. You don’t get the sense that this film has any real style of its own.
*. I think David Thomson should be quoted on Schlesinger here: “Because he believes in ‘story’ above all, his pictures seem opportunistic, and employ superficial, gimmicky stylistic imitations. This is not uncommon in the cinema, and would be tolerable if his films were not so plain-looking. In other words, he has a dull eye, he is often unsure as to where to put the camera, and he edits uneasily.”
*. This is a tricky point and I’m not sure I can explain it fully other than to point to what Thomson calls Scheslinger’s “dull eye.” An imaginative visual style isn’t his native language. He knows the words — the locations and the arrangement by storyboard — but not the music. We look at all the set-piece scenes and they register without engaging us on an emotional level. As for the uneasy editing, just look at that opening drag race. Ugh.
*. Laurence Olivier thought he was dying, and indeed was dying before his illness gave him a break. I don’t know how much that played into his performance here, but I think he’s brilliant as the bitter old man who is, like any bully, cruel when he’s on top and a cowardly whiner when things aren’t going his way. I didn’t buy his childlike glee at finally seeing the diamonds, but that was probably part of the script. Olivier was a stickler for staying on script.

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*. I wonder why Roy Scheider never became a bigger star. I think his general air of humourlessness had something to do with it.
*. Nobody could ever trust William Devane’s Kennedy grin, could they? Those chompers just don’t look real.
*. Elsa (Marthe Keller) is supposedly Swiss, and clearly speaks with a strong German accent (she says she didn’t even know English when she did her screen test). So why is she trying to teach Babe French?
*. When I saw the name Ben Dova in the credits I knew it had to be made up. It was. The actor’s real name was Joseph Spah. Interesting trivia: he plays Szell’s brother here, dying in the fiery explosion that blows up the gas truck. This may have some symbolic meaning referring to the Holocaust, but Spah was also one of the survivors of the Hindenburg crash in 1937. Did you know that most of the passengers and crew on the Hindenburg actually survived?

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*. That water treatment plant at the end isn’t an actual location but a set that was built specially for the film. I was surprised and impressed by that.
*. At the end of Goldman’s novel Babe has no trouble killing Szell. Indeed he enjoys pumping him full of bullets, using them as punctuation as he tells Szell how he’s being sent to hell. It was an interesting decision then to have the ending play out differently here (a change apparently made at Hoffman’s behest, and which Goldman disliked but understood). To me it’s not entirely consistent. We’ve just seen Babe shoot and kill Janeway, a sleazy and culpable character to be sure but not on the same level of wickedness as Szell.
*. Does it matter that there are questions left unanswered? Perhaps the biggest of these is the matter of whose side Janeway is on, exactly. I suppose this could have been made clearer, but to me his “division” is just operating somewhere in the murky world of espionage and explaining it wouldn’t have added much and might have detracted from the general sense of paranoia.
*. In the end I think Marathon Man stands near the top of the list of conspiracy thrillers that were very big at the time. And overall I think it holds up very well. If it falls short of being the classic it might have been, that’s not too upsetting. Even with all the right ingredients the recipe doesn’t always come out perfect.

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