Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Marathon Man (1976)


          A year after Jaws gave a generation of moviegoers nightmares about great white sharks, the brilliant thriller Marathon Man made dentistry seem like the most terrifying thing in the world. Playing a Nazi war criminal obsessed with finding a cache of stolen diamonds, the venerable Sir Laurence Olivier scared the crap out of audiences by performing oral surgery without anesthetic on the movie’s hero (Dustin Hoffman), all the while muttering the unanswerable lunatic query, “Is it safe?”
          Hoffman plays Babe, a New York City graduate student and marathon runner unwittingly drawn into a race between the Nazi and U.S. government agents. In a deft touch, the movie’s narrative is intentionally convoluted—although screenwriter William Goldman, who adapted the story from his own novel, makes the basics of the story clear enough for viewers to follow along, he ensures that moviegoers as perplexed as Babe, which adds to the tension of watching the film. By showing people getting killed left and right, and by demonstrating that everyone in the movie is chasing everyone else, Goldman creates a dizzying vibe in which it’s impossible to tell who can be trusted. Yet Goldman also keeps viewers squarely in Babe’s camp, since he’s the one true innocent in the story.
          Director John Schlesinger, whose previous collaboration with Hoffman was the Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy (1969), gracefully balances pulpy material with sophisticated execution, so even though Marathon Man is primarily a very effective thrill machine, it’s also a credible dramatic film with subtle textures like the layered relationship between Babe and his secret-agent older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider). There’s even an edgy love story between Babe and Elsa (Marthe Keller), plus a complex dynamic between Babe and Doc’s fellow spy, Janeway (William Devane). However, what makes the biggest impact is Szell (Olivier), the unhinged German with a nasty habit of jabbing drills and needles into healthy teeth, causing victims unbearable pain. Olivier’s performance, which earned an Oscar nomination, sits on the border between genius and camp, but his choices were validated by how deeply he unsettled audiences; Szell is inarguably one of the creepiest screen villains of the ’70s.
          Hoffman’s great acting in the picture is sometimes overshadowed by Olivier’s star turn and also by oft-repeated lore about Hoffman’s overzealous work ethic. In the most notorious incident, Hoffman stayed up all night as preparation for a scene in which his character is exhausted, only to have Olivier ask, “Why don’t you just try acting, dear boy?” Yet while the thespians used different methods, both delivered peerless results that, when combined with Goldman’s rip-roaring narrative and Schlesinger’s masterful direction, created 129 minutes of vivid escapist entertainment.

Marathon Man: RIGHT ON

2 comments:

K Doherty said...

I am confused on how you say that Mr. Olivier's performance is on the fence between camp and genius, but is validated by audience reaction and then other performances in other reviews that were praised by critics, such as Lily Tomlin in the Late Show you dismiss. As a critic, was it genius or camp - I liked Marathon Man, but I thought Mr. Olivier's performance was definitely on the campy side. I believe this movie is only memorable because of the justly celebrated dentist scene, but aside from that and a few other set pieces, the old lady, yelling after Szell in the street, the beginning scene that sets off this movie,the movie is brought down by Marthe Keller's wooden performance and and very convoluted plot that does not make much sense

By Peter Hanson said...

The helpful nuance, perhaps, is to note that saying something exists on the border between X and Y doesn't necessarily connote a binary difference. Which is to say that Olivier's performance is both brilliant and campy, neither exclusively one nor exclusively the other. As for the comparison to Tomlin in 'The Late Show,' that's apples and oranges -- in this instance, the criteria is whether a performance connected with audiences, and in the other, the criteria is whether a performance connected with cultural elites. I would argue that if Olivier's performance lacked effectiveness, the dentist scene wouldn't have traumatized audiences the way it did.