Marathon Man (1976)

Directed by John Schlesinger

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I have four movies queued up to write about, and me being sick means my scattered brain wants to pick the movie that I’m least interested in.  That would be Marathon Man, which isn’t abysmal by any stretch of the imagination, but it is quite a bit of what you’d expect.  Or is it?  This is a thriller in which a college grad student (played by 38 year old Dustin Hoffman) gets caught up in political espionage but comes out the other side all right.

It’s a funny movie for a few reasons and quite enjoyable because of Hoffman’s commitment to the role.  It’s a film with the occasional ‘moment’ but little holding it together.  It’s a thriller, but it’s not all that exciting.  You meet a variety of characters without understanding how they connect.  Then they do, and there’s really only a series of escapes before Hoffman gets his retribution.  I suppose it just feels a little… stale because the first half of the movie bounces back and forth between Hoffman and another character, and it’s really only at the midpoint when Hoffman finds himself at the center of this insanity.

He’s the protagonist of the movie, but his actions do not drive the story until the final thirty or so minutes.  So this is a story about a fascinating character, but what’s fascinating about him is mostly unrelated to the plot.  And as far as the plot goes, he does just about one substantial thing to bring the movie to a close.  So we’re meant to empathize with the protagonist, but he’s on the sidelines of the A plot.  This means that the characters who occupy that central plot, at least for the first half of the movie, partake in all the action but are themselves quite uninteresting.  They are there for the intrigue and for the violent set pieces, but we don’t have much reason to care what happens to them because we don’t even know who they are.

To put it another way, this is the type of story where an everyman character gets caught up in something way over his head.  We should start by learning about the character and figuring out why we care about him.  Then he gets involved in this dangerous game, and because we know him, we root for him.

The first half of Marathon Man is effectively two different movies.  Not effectively, it is.  On one hand you have Hoffman as Babe, a grad student at Columbia who is a passionate, obsessive long-distance runner.  He’s not dissimilar from his character in The Graduate, and he seems the type of person you’d find in a romantic comedy.  We meet Babe as he hurries around central park and finding himself in a race against a competitive stranger.  He’s like Steve Prefontaine without the natural ability, but his intensity feels organic, partially because Hoffman can sometimes be such an electric presence onscreen.  As a method actor, he has a habit for bringing to his roles some kind of thinly veiled madness.  His characters, like in The Graduate and Straw Dogs and even in All the President’s Men, are a little out of their minds.  At first they look the part, whether that’s student or intellectual or journalist, and by the end we see just how desperate or driven or inspired they were from the start.  His characters start with shells, and by the end they shatter them.  It is no different with Marathon Man.

That being said, Babe balances the line between playing the fool and playing the empathetic hero.  We get a single scene in one of his classes to establish that he’s smart and that his father’s death years ago has had an understandably profound effect on him.  His father was the victim of McCarthy era slandering, driving him to suicide.  Babe plans to write his thesis on tyranny as it has been known within America.

Soon we will learn that– wait, is this even important?  See this is what I mean.  The two things we learn early on about Babe, well three, are that he’s an avid runner, he’s a grad student, and he is deeply affected by his father’s death.  Now, Babe becomes embroiled in the A plot because his brother, Doc (Roy Scheider) comes to town and is murdered.  From what I recall, Doc’s murky past has some connection to their father, but not necessarily a direct one.  The information we learn about Babe only serves to make us like him, and I think it works, but it has nothing to do with the rest of the story.  Sure, when Babe runs away from his kidnappers later in the story there are a series of shots of a marathon runner he admires, meant to inspire him, but that’s not at all necessary.

Maybe I missed something, but it all feels unimportant.  There is the symbolic connection of family, to be sure, and there was a scene cut out of the movie which helped elaborate on this theme.

Okay, so Babe meets a French student named Elsa (Marthe Keller) and promptly falls in love with her.  When Doc comes to town and meets her, he immediately recognizes that she’s a spy.  Why?  Well Doc is an assassin who we’ve followed over the first half of the film as he traveled through various parts of Europe, was nearly blown up and subsequently fought a baby doll-looking assassin to the death, badly cutting his hand in the process.

I never really understood what Doc was up to, and I don’t think we were meant to understand.  HIs pre-midpoint journey was about establishing a mystery which would unfold in the second half of the film.  What’s frustrating is that all this action is purposefully vague, and all of the exposition is then shoved into a scene about 70 minutes into the movie when someone explains to Babe what’s going on.  And that man, who looks like a cop, turns out to be a mole, working for the bad guy.  He spilled all the beans in an effort to get Babe to confess is he knows anything, and well I’m getting ahead of myself.

Doc meets Babe and Elsa.  He calls out Elsa for being a spy, and later he meets with another intimidating old man named Szell (Laurence Olivier) who turns out to be a Nazi, so you know, he’s bad.  Szell has a plan to collect all these diamonds he wants, and he’s fearful that Doc is going to steal them.  They meet late at night, and Doc gets angry that they brought family into this, referring to Elsa seducing Babe.  Then Szell kills Doc, but he doesn’t do him in completely, giving Doc enough time to run all the way Babe’s apartment to die in his arms.

*There was an earlier scene cut out of the movie in which Doc saw an assassin friend be killed, and he vowed right then and there never to let himself die lonely and isolated.  That is meant to explain why Doc ran over to Babe’s apartment, simply because he wanted to die around someone he loved.  It’s a simple yet meaningful reason, and it’s important because the villain (Szell) sends his goons after Babe, certain that Doc divulged some kind of secret to him.  This fuels the rest of the movie, and I kind of love it that the real reason is so human.

Szell and his goons are really pretty sloppy.  They don’t finish off Doc then and there, for some reason, and then they scramble to kidnap Babe when they’re scared that he knows something.  They never should have let it get this far, and after an intense torture scene (I never want to go to the dentist again), they let Babe escape because they’re incompetent.

Yada yada yada, this all leads to a confrontation at Babe’s childhood home (he suddenly gets out of town with Elsa), and in that scene everyone except Babe is killed, including Elsa.  This compels Babe to return to the city to stop Szell who is near to getting his diamonds.

Szell, as I said, is a Nazi and apparently a famous one.  Though he shaves his head, a woman recognizes him on the street and calls out for people to stop him.  It’s a surprisingly harrowing scene and arguably the highlight of the movie.  Despite her pleas for help, Szell gets away after killing a man in broad daylight, and this all leads to a showdown between him and Babe.

Babe wins, Szell dies, and the movie ends with Babe running in the park.

Marathon Man is a fine movie, but it’s frustrating because it feels too long, too disorganized, and the villains are extremely incompetent when the plot calls for it.  This is that story of the everyman finding himself part of a bigger threat, and he finds it in himself to triumph in the end.  This usually means a demonstration of extreme growth and a plausibility of the hero’s strength.

But Babe is just a student who likes to run.  I guess he’s fast, and he’s able to run away, but the only reason he triumphs is because the villains are…

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…out to lunch.

Dustin Hoffman does a nice job here, particularly in the torture scenes, and the movie only really works on that kind of pure energy level.  The way he reacts to his brother’s death, to the torture and ultimately to his need for revenge, it’s all quit gripping.  It worked despite the story’s lunacy and lack of logic.  I felt for Babe in various moments, and I think that speaks to the performance more than the script.

I similarly like Roy Scheider.  He’s a good actor, probably a bit underrated (The French ConnectionJaws), but he has little to do here.  He’s an action star (we see him do push ups for godssakes), but his character only has one scene to connect with his brother before he dies in his arms.  That deleted scene, I expect, would’ve added much more depth to his character, but as it is he’s just a character to drive the plot until Babe takes over.

I didn’t think I had 1,718 hundred words to say about Marathon Man, but here we are.

Up Next: The Fog of War (2003), Platoon (1986), The Big Red One (1980)

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