Christian Szell: Is it safe?... Is it safe?
Christian Szell: Well, what are you going to do now, shoot me?
Babe: Listen, I want you to rob my apartment.
[Szell prepares to torture Babe a second time]
Christian Szell: The gun had blanks, the knife, a retractable blade. Hardly original, but effective enough. I think you'll agree. I'm told you are a graduate student. Brilliant, yes? You are an historian, and I am part of history. I should have thought you would have found me interesting. Frankly, I am disappointed in your silence.
Janeway: [Referring to his dead brother] What did he do?
CoverUps.com Rating: 3 UFOs
By the CoverUps.com staff
Here at CoverUps.com, we're not purists when it comes to thrillers, and with "Marathon Man," that's a blessing. If a movie like this is going to really work for an audience, it has to do so moment by moment, scene by scene — and "Marathon Man" meets that standard. By the time the movie's over there's a tangle of unanswered (if not unanswerable) questions, but if you know what's good for you, we urge you not to go down that road. It's far better to just enjoy thrillers for the people and the jams they get in, not the Spock-like rationality of their plots.
Fortunately for us, "Marathon Man" is almost all people and their jams — or, more to the point, one person and his unending series of jams. We meet him at the beginning of the film during his ritual morning long-distance run: A graduate student named Babe (Dustin Hoffman) who has all sorts of cares and worries bottled up inside (as all Dustin Hoffman characters are wont to do).
His brother (Roy Scheider) works for an oil company (not — actually he's with the government, in the pay of a shadowy agency that specializes in dirty jobs the CIA and the FBI want no part of). Then one day he gets killed, and a man claiming to be one of the brother's compatriots shows up and says he needs Babe's help in setting a trap. And before he knows it, Babe's up to his neck in an intrigue so murky and convoluted that neither he nor the movie can straighten it out for us. Said intrigue includes a former Nazi named Szell, played by Laurence Olivier with an urbane malice that is memorable and scary. Szell's domicile is, naturally, in the South American jungle, and he has a fortune in diamonds with his name on it waiting in a New York safe-deposit box. When Szell's brother is killed in what is best understood as a classically New York traffic accident, Szell is basically flushed out of hiding to collect the diamonds.
He's paranoid, and he has a right to be (sucks to be a Nazi war criminal, don't it?). He has ties with the secret US agency, but he's also afraid the American agents will try to steal his diamonds, which is why Babe's brother had to be killed. Now Szell is in New York, looking for Babe. It was about at this point that we abandoned any thought of following the plot. Our advice to you would be to not even bother and save yourself the aggravation. Just lay back and enjoy it — it's better that way. All we know for sure is that Babe is wanted both by Szell and the government agents.
The film is based on a best seller by William Goldman that was supposedly much more rigorous in tidying up its loose ends. What director John Schlesinger has done, fortunately, is forget about the plot holes and craft a long series of scenes that enthrall us as we watch them, such that questions never enter our minds. There's the introductory car crash, spawned from exchanged insults. There's the justly infamous scene in which Olivier, a one-time dentist, tortures Hoffman by drilling into his teeth. There's an incredibly tense journey on foot through the New York diamond district in which Olivier is spotted by his old victims. And there's a superb footchase down a deserted highway interchange.
These scenes, and a very dicey tryst between Hoffman and Marthe Keller (who may or may not be an agent of either side), all work their magic on their own terms. Do they add up to a bullet-proof plot? No. But if that sort of thing bothers you, stay away from "Marathon Man". On the other hand, if you like well-crafted escapist story-telling and diabolical thrillers, your ship has come in.