Skip to main content

I’m not going into that cavity. That one’s already dying.

Marathon Man
(1976)

(SPOILERS) Marathon Man’s one of those movies where the deficiencies become less easy to ignore the more times you see it. On first viewing, it’s an absorbing, visceral thriller with smart twists and occasionally surprising turns, lent a degree of conviction somewhat at odds with its Nazi war criminal on-the-loose mythos (for more of that, see The Boys from Brazil a couple of years later). There are various disagreements on record with regard to the better course of key production decisions, mostly based on screenwriter William Goldman being unimpressed with changes made by director John Schlesinger in concert with star Dustin Hoffman, but the picture’s essential problems are beyond either creative conflagrations. Because both, in various ways, were trying to dress pure pulp up as respectable, prestige moviemaking, with the effect that, like new wine in old skins, it starts leaking everywhere.

Pauline Kael was not a fan, and while I think Marathon Man is a much more engaging picture than she did, she was spot on when she asserted Schlesinger “attempts material that lesser directors can do better”. He continually overdoes the resonant visuals, intercutting Hoffman’s Babe’s running with sepia footage or stills of athletes and his childhood grief. The effect is to expose how slender the character is, not to bolster him. Midnight Cowboy, which I consider massively overrated, and Day of the Locust, which is massively self-important, allowed Schlesinger to work on a level he considered artistically reflective of his own interests. With Marathon Man, he could only attempt to plaster on texture and hope it sticks.

The same is true of his leading man. Hoffman’s delivering much too much performance here for Babe’s slenderness (“there’s more background than foreground in Babe’s character” as Kael put it). When he’s just reacting – to being tortured, to his brother dying – he’s great, but the detrimental Dustin tics and quirks are fully to the fore when Babe is required to work things out and ask questions. There’s way too much Hoffman for such a slim character, something also underlined by his being way too old, and not a terribly convincing marathon runner (any more than a terribly convincing woman).

Laurence Olivier lobbied for the part of Nazi war criminal Christian Szell, and he was famously experiencing terminal health issues at the time (he’d live another eleven years). It’s interesting that Hoffman told Sir Larry he was hamming it up (“Too much, dear boy?”), because the response ought to have been that you can’t deliver too much when you’re playing a cartoon. Szell is a walking Machiavelli, having secured his fortune through diamonds taken from Jews killed at Auschwitz. Thirty years have done nothing to dampen his inherent sadism and enjoyment of making his victims suffer, hence the infamous torture scene in which, as a licensed dentist, he drills Babe’s healthy teeth. And his retractable blade, good for killing Babe’s brother or any Village inhabitant calling him out that day. He’s set up to meet a horrible end, basically, and Olivier musters the part with due concentrated evil (he would balance things out by playing for the angels in the aforementioned The Boys from Brazil two years later). Obviously, it’s a short distance from here to the Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Nazis (and, let’s face it, the Schindler’s List ones too, Hollywood caricatures all).

The Hoffman-Olivier clash of acting styles has sired more commentary over the years than anything in the film itself, including that dental chair scene. Some of it comes from Goldman, who recapped his involvement with the adaptation of his 1974 novel in Adventures in the Screen Trade, mainly by focussing on what a trooper the suffering knight was in the face of the somewhat inconsiderate demands of his self-involved co-star. Some say Goldman was simply pissed off because they changed his ending (Robert Towne rewrote it). Hoffman has attempted to reshape the “Why don’t you just try acting?” anecdote, but one can sense the truth in Goldman’s assessment that the star’s behaviour was all about insecurity. Also, most likely, it was because Hoffman’s a bit of a jerk and will test anyone’s patience (Sydney Pollack run through the mill on Tootsie). He certainly doesn’t do his sex-pest reputation any favours in the DVD doc when he comments on how well he and Marthe Keller got along with a nebbish grin and “If I hadn’t been married at the time…

Kael called the novel “… Death Wish with a lone Jewish boy getting his own back from the Nazis… a Jewish revenge fantasy” but felt the movie squandered that and the potential for suspense. Certainly, Hoffman admits to having reacted instinctively against this in respect of the ending and “killing a Nazi”. It’s this that led to Towne rewriting the scene and the demand to “Eat the diamonds”, with Szell falling on his sword, so to speak. “Hollywood loves that shit” opined Goldman, but I’m not sure his gun-wielding marathon runner would have been altogether better. I’ll give Goldman that his version isn’t trying to dress mutton as lamb, but at the core they’re still both yielding to the writer’s “boys’-book-rites-of-manhood universe”.

It’s why I agree with Scheider’s assessment on reading the novel, that the most interesting character was killed off at the halfway mark. That character being Babe’s brother Doc, the fellow Scheider plays; he didn’t yet have the part when he read it, though (notably, Goldman resurrected Doc for sequel Brothers, which sounds absolutely dreadful. Goldman called it quits on novel writing soon after). Doc inhabits this genre universe with due conviction; in contrast it’s quite rare for the average-joe thriller to work with any kind of verisimilitude if that average joe proves remarkably capable – and particularly so with a weapon.

I don’t disagree with Kael’s assessment of the obscurity of the double games the Division is operating; “Whenever we wanted to bring one of them in, we come to Szell” Janeway (William Devane) explains, regarding the Division’s relationship with the Nazi, who would presumably rat on his old buddies to maintain his freedom. So why Szell now suspects Doc of double-crossing him (or double double-crossing him) is unclear. Even more why he thinks he can get away with stabbing Doc to death. And as for the nature of Janeway’s double agent status, who knows why he disposes of Szell’s henchmen at Szell’s brother’s house (it may mop up potential threats, but it certainly doesn’t mop up Babe, as he discovers a minute later).

Doc: You know, the great Chablis of the world are almost always green eyed. In fact, they’re the ones that most resemble diamonds.

If these elements are murky, Scheider’s presence lends a backbone to this heightened world; he’s never trying to make the part into something it isn’t, which is the case whenever Hoffman’s on screen. The torture scene may be the most famous, but for my money, two others are more indelible, both featuring Scheider. The first has Doc attacked with a piano wire, seriously injuring his hand and resulting in a tense fight with his opponent (blocked out by Scheider and his martial-artist fellow performer after Roy rejected Schlesinger’s ideas). The second finds Doc taking Babe and Elsa (Marthe Keller) to dinner, focussing his questions on her bona fides and swiftly calling her out. It’s a great scene of reframing the movie’s reality; it appeared that Babe was pursuing Elsa until this point, but Doc taking minutes to see she’s something else.

In the novel, Doc and Janey were lovers, not something that occurred to me from seeing the movie, even as Schlesinger takes the opportunity to pore over every inch of his lead performers’ toned physiques (even Scheider’s face is sinewy). But then, it seems the crucial content to Doc’s character “slipping” was also excised: an early eight-minute passage in which he kills two assassins who in turn killed a spy colleague (Goldman felt this explained why he would show up at Babe’s door). The sequence was removed in the name of excessive violence, apparently (as was Doc being disembowelled by Szell), but by limiting Doc’s presence, it also serves to keep in focus who the real protagonist is.

While William Devane is a fine actor, there was no way you’d cast him if you really wanted to divert suspicion from a character. He’s inherently villain material, and so you expect he’ll turn out to be duplicitous. The sequence in which this occurs is a decent enough fake out, though, following on from the likes of The Ipcress File and preceding the likes of The Game. Keller has little to do that isn’t cypher-ish; she’d make more impression on Hollywood when her hair started falling out in the following year’s Bobby Deerfield. Inevitably, she’s killed once she has served her purpose. It’s that kind of movie.

It’s also the kind of movie where any given Nazi war criminal straying into Greenwich Village three decades down the line can’t move for being recognised by a Holocaust survivor every five yards. One occasion might be plausible, but using the device three times is plain sloppy. And again, it draws attention to the pulpy nature of the material. You almost expect Mel Brooks to show up.

There’s a superb score in the tone of Michael Small’s conspiracy predecessor The Parallax View, all eerie cues. Conrad Hall’s cinematography is top notch too. Robert Evans, naturally, sold the hell out of the movie. I mean, he’s the kind of guy who’d seek to persuade you Kissinger is a great bloke. No, really. Marathon Man duly garnered Olivier an Oscar nod, but no more than that (BAFTA noticed Hoffman, though, and the recently-cancelled for un-wokeness Golden Globes, being typically indiscriminate, had it nominated five times. Olivier won his). It’s actually a good example of New Hollywood gradually sliding back into more shamelessly commercial fare, without anyone batting an eyelid. Involving, engaging, great performances, flashy direction. But very low calorie.




Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.