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.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

You cut my head off a couple of dozen times.

Boss Level (2021) (SPOILERS) Lest you thought it was nigh-on impossible to go wrong with a Groundhog Day premise, Joe Carnahan, in his swaggering yen for overkill, very nearly pulls it off with Boss Level . I’m unsure quite what became of Carnahan’s early potential, but he seems to have settled on a sub-Tarantino, sub-Bay, sub-Snyder, sub-Ritchie butch bros aesthetic, complete with a tin ear for dialogue and an approach to plotting that finds him continually distracting himself, under the illusion it’s never possible to have too much. Of whatever it is he’s indulging at that moment.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef