Marathon Man, directed by John Schlesinger and written by William Goldman (based on his own novel of the same name) fits snugly into the well known cycle of paranoid thrillers that came out of Hollywood in the 60s and 70s. Films like The Manchurian Candidate, Klute, The Parallax View, The Conversation, and Three Days of the Condor are just a few of the most famous films that touched on the jittery, paranoiac zeitgeist of the same decades that gave us myriad political assassinations, Watergate, and the Vietnam war. Marathon Man isn’t as fixated on mass media’s ability and tendency to manipulate as some of those films are, and doesn’t share their obsessions with various forms of recording and spying technology. There’s very little voyeurism to the plot of Marathon Man, even as it owes a significant debt to Hitchcock. But nevertheless, it has a potent anxiety all its own, about old, even historical evils that never die but learn to disguise themselves and reappear in new forms.
“Babe” Levy (played by Dustin Hoffman) is our protagonist and titular marathon man, a nervy academic trying to redeem his blacklisted father, who we learn committed suicide under the terrible pressures the Red Scare of the 1950s brought down on him. He’s a history PHd student working on a thesis on the subject of tyranny, and it’s clear that what happened to his father has grown into an obsession that he’s hoping to expunge through his doctoral work, but as it turns out the thriller plot he’s about to become ensnared in will be far more cathartic than any doctoral thesis ever could be. It’s been many years since I read Goldman’s novel but my impression from watching the film again recently is that these character details might work better on the page than they do on screen, and it’s entirely possible to watch Marathon Man and forget all about them, especially with so much spy-on-spy violence and Nazi dentistry going on. But the theme of tyranny is a good pathway towards understanding exactly what makes Marathon Man and so many other paranoid thrillers so paranoid in the first place: people in power have done terrible things to their victims and will do it again if we let them.
That can refer to McCarthyism or fascism in general but it’s embodied in Marathon Man by Dr. Christian Szell, one of the great villains in thriller history. Szell is based on Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele and is played in the film with chilling gentility by Laurence Olivier. Much has already been written about Olivier’s Szell, a ruthless killer nevertheless capable of the minutest social manipulations, but suffice it to say he’s the most crucial piece of the film’s jigsaw mosaic, the character most singly responsible for all the plot’s mayhem and murder, and Oliver’s performance shoulders the burden with natural ease.
Szell is an infamous Nazi war criminal who’s been working with a shadowy US government agency that has transported his diamonds from place to place in exchange for information and cooperation in tracking down other Nazi fugitives. The precise details of this arrangement aren’t explicitly dealt with in the film but it’s difficult if not impossible to be reminded of real-life collaborations between “former” Nazis and the US government after World War II to one end or another, the history of which lends even more righteous fury to Babe’s quest for revenge if you care to look for it.
Babe and Szell cross paths by way of Babe’s brother Henry, codenamed Scylla, nicknamed Doc. Played by Roy Scheider, Doc is Babe’s opposite-mirror image in many ways, sophisticated and suave, a man of action rather than intellect, and who earns enough money through his work with that aforementioned government agency to maintain a cover as a successful businessman in the oil industry. Szell orders the murder of Doc and everyone else in his diamond courier network after the (unrelated and totally coincidental) death of Szell’s brother, and when a dying Doc staggers to Babe’s apartment before he finally goes, no one on either side can believe that he didn’t tell him anything important.
That’s a classic Hitchcockian setup, from the Macguffin to the wrong man scenario, Babe mistaken by all the bad guys for someone who knows something about Szell’s diamonds or any plans to steal them. Which in turn leads us to Marathon Man’s own personal shower scene, the set-piece everybody remembers even if they’ve never seen the movie: Babe’s torturous interrogation at the hands of Dr. Szell, who uses his dentistry skills to extract either information or assurance that Babe knows nothing. This is a truly harrowing sequence in both the novel and the film and as legend has it was much more graphic and disturbing in early preview versions of the film, before it was decided that some of the film’s violence should be toned down for the sake of audience sensibilities. The sequence works so well that it’s hard to imagine what the harder-edged, more explicit version might have been like.
Marathon Man may be focused on heavy themes of political tyranny and its various historical guises but it’s also pure pulp. Szell has his own signature weapon, a wrist mounted blade that allows him to kill cobra-fast in broad daylight and surrounded by a New York City crowd without anyone seeing what happened, a device (in both the dramatic and mechanical senses of the word) that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of the grittier Roger Moore 007 films of the same period. I also love James Wing Woo in the role of Chen, an assassin with some kind of weird toy fixation that, again, one can easily imagine being a second-or-third tier villain in a Bond movie. And yet, for me anyway, it all works, thanks to Schlesinger’s polished bordering on prestigious style and the incredible cast, not just Hoffman, Olivier and Scheider but Marthe Keller and William Devane as well. There’s even room for an always welcome Fritz Weaver scene.
Marathon Man holds a special place in my heart but it isn’t for any particularly thematically resonant reason. Instead it served as one of the first older (say, pre-1980s) films I got into early on in my film education, I imagine because it was canonized in one of those American Film Institute lists. At that point in time I was a total thriller novice and entirely susceptible to the charms of this kind of story, the plot twists but the superficial trappings as well, and it remained a favorite for years, leading me to Goldman’s novel and in a more indirect way hundreds of thrillers on the page and the screen both before and after its release. But before my recent viewing it had been over a decade since I’d last seen it and I was surprised to see I still knew a lot of the dialogue and other details by heart. That’s always a bizarre sensation, and even more so when the object in question is as chilly as Marathon Man.
Goldman wrote a sequel to Marathon Man, called Brothers, in which Scylla (the Roy Scheider character) survives his seemingly fatal wounds through some plot contrivance or another. That was never adapted for the screen and now will likely never be, unless some streaming platform decides it can outdo Schleschinger, Goldman, Hoffman, and Olivier, and turns Marathon Man into a 10-part miniseries, with an entire episode given over to Szell’s drill.
Like a lot of Hollywood espionage films, Marathon Man is about the artifice and deception inherent in spy work. In one of the film’s most memorable set-pieces that doesn’t involve a dentist’s drill, Babe believes himself to be rescued by Devane’s government bigwig from Szell’s clutches, only to discover that the entire rescue (and its attendant stabbings and shootings) were all faked for his benefit, as a way to get him to talk once Szell’s preliminary tortures failed. It’s almost like something out of the Mission: Impossible series, although it’s hard to imagine the IMF collaborating with a Nazi war criminal like Szell for any reason -- another sign of the cynicism that defines the Marathon Man worldview.
If the first two thirds or so of Marathon Man point towards a sinister intersection of interests that no normal person like Babe could ever hope to understand, the final third is all about Babe taking control and getting his revenge. After escaping Szell and the agency’s clutches for real this time, he strikes back at all the double and triple agents who killed his brother and made his life miserable, but he’s clearly also striking out on behalf of all the victims of 20th century tyranny, from the blacklist to the Holocaust, and the climactic faceoff between Babe and Szell puts Marathon Man in line with not just its paranoid thriller ilk but revenge movies like Death Wish or maybe even some of another Hoffman vehicle from around the same time: Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (although Marathon Man could never hope to compete with that film’s level of thorniness or provocation). A revenge movie for the Left is the goal Marathon Man seems to set up for itself, and for me anyway it fulfills that concept with verve and flair.