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USA 1976
Directed by
John Schlesinger
125 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Marathon Man

John Schlesinger’s suspense thriller adapted by William Goldman from his book of the same name has somewhat neurotic Ph.D. history student Thomas Babbington 'Babe' Levy (Dustin Hoffman), pitted against arch-villain Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), as a Mengele-like Nazi who after his brother is killed in a car accident has slithered out of his Uraguay hide-out to retrieve a cache of diamonds stashed in a New York bank . Szell has a nefarious relationship with an undercover US Government organisation for which Thomas’s brother, Henry 'Doc' Levy (Roy Scheider) works and when the latter is killed by Szell, Babe is drawn into the murk.

Like a good many thrillers you have to work so much to follow the convoluted plot of Marathon Man that you haven’t really got time to worry about its weaknesses even though subliminally you feel that they are notching up. The film runs for a good while on two discrete paths, one which follows Babe whose soul is sorely troubled by the suicide of his father twenty years earlier but whose angst is considerably appeased when he meets a pretty young woman (Marthe Keller) in a library, the other which follows his brother who is somehow involved in shady dealings with Szell. It's when these two strands join up that credibility largely flies out the window (this is setting aside things like the amazingly lax airport security that allows Szell to wear a deadly metal apparatus beneath his clothes).

Despite the credibilty gap Schlesinger brings a good deal of persuasion to the story thanks to things like his pioneering use of Steadicam for the New York jewellery district scenes recalling his excellent use of exteriors in his masterpiece Midnight Cowboy (1969) which was a;so set in New York and also starred Hoffman although you’d have to say that action is not his strong suit, some of these scenes, such as the initial car smash, being very poorly handled (the film was his first foray into the action thriller genre) and the final climactic confrontation between Babe and Szell being underwhelming.

The film's strongest card is Olivier who gives a memorable performance as the evil Dr Szell. A buffed-up Hoffman, who, in keeping with the film's title, does a lot of running (one can't help but wonder if this activity  had more relevance in the book than it does on screen, the cutaways to images of famous Olympic runner Abebe Bikila, for example, suggesting  a significance that is never borne out here) is serviceable enough although then being 38 he is far too old to play a college student and his casting throws the film off-balance.

The end result is that Marathon Man is a watchable but not overly satisfying film.




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