When I was young film viewer, my naïve view of Nazis in movies were as stereotypical villains, the type you saw in films like CASABLANCA (1943) or last month's film blog RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). They were cartoonish. But there was another type of Nazi that was making headlines in the 1960s and 70s that became subject matter for a few films. It was the real life Nazis who escaped Germany before the war ended and emigrated to South America. The most famous Nazi who got caught after WWII was Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann blended into the Buenos Aires German community until he was caught in 1960 and hanged in 1962. But the most infamous Nazi who fled Germany and was never caught although legend has it he's hiding in some South American jungle trying to start the Fourth Reich was Dr. Josef Mengele. Truth be told, Mengele had a stroke and accidentally drowned in Brazil 1979.
Nicknamed the "Angel of Death", Mengele was responsible for sending many Jews to the gas chamber at Auschwitz and for performing horrific experiments on them during WWII. In 1978 Franklin J. Schaffner's film THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL based on the novel by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby) was released. THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL was about a Jewish Nazi hunter played by Laurence Olivier hunting for Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck) in South America. But there was an earlier film that had caught my attention about a Nazi war criminal who comes out of hiding and shows up in New York. It was MARATHON MAN (1976) directed by John Schlesinger (MIDNIGHT COWBOY) and starring Dustin Hoffman. Ironically, Laurence Olivier stars in MARATHON MAN as well but instead of playing a Nazi hunter, Olivier played the fictional Nazi war criminal Dr. Christian Szell, clearly patterned on Mengele.
In my teens in the 70s, CrazyFilmGuy (then just a comic book/girl crazy nerd) was fascinated by the Loch Ness monster, UFO sightings, Bigfoot, and the Bermuda Triangle. But as I got into middle school and matured a bit, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa and Nazi war criminals hiding in South America piqued my interest. So when MARATHON MAN came out, I was keen to see it. MARATHON MAN is a combination of the conspiracy paranoid thriller/urban noir genre with the Nazi war criminal subplot thrown in. But like some other films I wanted to see during the mid-70's like JAWS or ROLLERBALL, MARATHON MAN was another film that my parents wouldn't let me see. It was R rated. I know I watched it at some point as an adult but I don't recall the particulars of the plot. And so I return to another forbidden fruit from my past to see what was all the fuss about MARATHON MAN.
With a screenplay by the great William Goldman (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID) based on his own novel, MARATHON MAN begins with a seemingly random incident. Two old men, one German, the other Jewish (Lou Gilbert), race through the streets of New York's Upper East Side, insulting each other, consumed by road rage until they crash their cars into a gas truck, killing both of them. This accident will set in motion dire consequences for two seemingly unconnected men. The German man killed was Klaus Szell (Ben Dova), the brother of wanted Nazi Auschwitz Concentration Camp dentist Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier). Szell's brother had one of two keys to Christian's safety deposit box full of diamonds extorted by Szell from Jewish prisoners seeking freedom during WWII. With his brother dead, the ex-Nazi Szell comes out of hiding from his Uruguayan jungle compound and sets off for New York to retrieve his fortune.
Thomas "Babe" Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a college graduate history student haunted by the suicide of his professor father. Babe's father was turned in by his friends as a communist during the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950's. Babe's mysterious older brother Doc (Roy Scheider) shows up in New York to visit his younger brother. When Doc is stabbed by Szell, he crawls back to Babe's apartment and dies. A federal agent Peter Janeway (William Devane) arrives to investigate. Janeway reveals that Doc and he were colleagues. They work for an agency known as the Division, a ghost agency situated between the FBI and the CIA that handles anything including taking care of Nazi war criminals. Known as the "White Angel" for his white hair (which he mostly cuts off before arriving in New York), Szell occasionally gave up other former Nazis to the Division in return for their protection. Doc was a courier between the Division and Szell. Janeway wants to know if Doc said anything to Babe before dying. Babe tells Janeway Doc said nothing and died in his arms.
Two men, Karl (Richard Bright) and Erhard (Marc Lawrence) break into Babe's apartment and kidnap him, whisking him away to a warehouse where Szell calmly tortures Babe with his dental instruments, repeatedly asking Babe, "Is it safe?" Satisfied Babe knows nothing and Doc wasn't trying to rob him, Szell orders Babe to be disposed. Babe manages to escape in a harrowing chase scene at night under the Brooklyn Bridge. Babe reunites with his girlfriend Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) and she takes Babe out of the city to a friend's house in upstate New York. But Babe soon realizes that he can't trust Elsa as Janeway, Karl, and Erhard show up at the country house.
Janeway reveals Szell is trying to sell his diamonds and flee the country. Babe survives a shootout with Janeway and his men. Szell goes to the bank and withdraws his safety deposit box with diamonds. But Babe is waiting for the former Nazi dentist. He takes Szell to a water treatment plant near the Central Park reservoir he runs around where he forces Szell to swallow his diamonds if he wants to live. But Szell is like a caged animal and will not bow down to Babe's wishes in a tense finale in which only one of them will survive.
So CrazyFilmGuy has provided the plot for MARATHON MAN but why exactly is the film called MARATHON MAN? Babe is a runner, training for his first marathon. Early in the film, we see Babe running and running around the Central Park Reservoir. Schlesinger occasionally cuts to newsreel footage of Ethiopian Olympic long distance runner Abebe Bikila, Babe's hero. Bikila won the 1960 Olympic marathon running barefoot. But running plays a key part in MARATHON MAN besides exercise. When Babe escapes the interrogation by Szell and Janeway, he's literally running for his life as the bad guys try to kill him. Metaphorically, Babe is running from his past, from his guilt over his father's suicide, a professor ratted out by his friends during the McCarthy era. He's running from his lack of drive, ambition. He's intelligent but holds himself back. His brother Doc is a renaissance man, a well dressed agent who knows his wines and tailors. Doc has moved on from their father's disgrace. But Babe can't run away from his father's legacy. He wants to clear his father's name.
Recently, I watched another John Schlesinger film, the period film FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (1967) based on a Thomas Hardy novel. Schlesinger's style is to not tell you what's going on or who's who. He makes audiences pay attention by not revealing too much right away. In MADDING, I didn't catch Julie Christie's characters name right away or that she had inherited a farm. CrazyFilmGuy needs to pay better attention. In MARATHON MAN, the early scenes don't seem connected at first. We're not sure how the two old men fighting and dying in a fiery car accident connects with Babe the college student or Doc who's in Paris barely escaping a car bombing and then an attack by a Chinese assassin Chen (James Wing Woo). Director Schlesinger and writer Goldman take their time rolling out the plot and the characters and how to connect the dots, making for a more satisfying, cerebral thriller. The first half of MARATHON MAN is like solving a puzzle.
Schlesinger would not be my first choice to direct a thriller. His previous films about an amoral model in DARLING (1965), a woman wooed by three different men in FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, and a male gigolo in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) are all very different and not particularly action oriented. But Schlesinger is well known for coaxing great performances out of actors. Julie Christie won an Academy Award in Schlesinger's DARLING. MIDNIGHT COWBOY showcases two of the best acting performances you will ever see by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Schlesinger would win a Best Director Academy Award for MIDNIGHT COWBOY. It was probably hard for Schlesinger to pass up a chance to make MARATHON MAN with two of the titans of acting at the time: the legendary Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman, one of the best actors in the business working in 1976 (and Hoffman and Schlesinger had worked together on MIDNIGHT COWBOY).
But the English born Schlesinger handles the style and action of the paranoid conspiracy film with ease. Cinematographer Conrad Hall (COOL HAND LUKE, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID) photographs MARATHON MAN with harsh lighting and deep shadows and rain slickened streets. Schlesinger and Hall are so good they make Babe's apartment and bathroom menacing. Babe's escape from his captors at night under the Brooklyn Bridge is suspenseful and well staged. Because Schlesinger is a foreigner, his images and compositions are interesting and different from what an American director would choose to show.
MARATHON MAN'S most infamous scene is Szell's torture interrogation on Babe (forever making moviegoers even more fearful of dentists). With the calm demeanor of the neighborhood dentist, Szell briefly chastises Babe for having a cavity before jabbing at a nerve, repeatedly asking "Is it Safe?" for Szell to extract his diamonds from the bank. I commend Schlesinger for his brevity in the torture scenes (today's filmmakers would have made it gorier) but then read on IMDB that originally, the dentist scene was much longer, with more screaming from Babe but the filmmakers ultimately cut it down. Another less known but equally suspenseful scene is Nazi Szell's journey into the lion's den when he wanders around the mostly Jewish diamond district in New York. Trying to gauge the price of uncut diamonds, Szell is recognized by several Concentration Camp survivors who scream his name and try to stop him. It's a powerful moment in the film, a chance for survivors to have their comeuppance against their torturer except Szell escapes before the angry mob can catch him.
Dustin Hoffman definitely looks in great shape for MARATHON MAN especially when he's shirtless running away from Szell's henchmen Karl and Erhard. But his performance as Babe Levy, although solid, reminds me of a similar character David Sumner that Hoffman played in Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS (1971). In both films, Hoffman plays meek, non-confrontational men who try to veer away from violence but circumstances force them to do brutal things they would not normally do. I guess one could see similarities in Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo in MIDNIGHT COWBOY and his Louis Dega in PAPILLION (1973) as well.
One of the joys to MARATHON MAN is watching one of the greatest actors of his generation on stage and film Laurence Olivier perform with arguably one of the most talented actors (along with Jack Nicholson) of this generation Dustin Hoffman. It's a match made in cinema heaven. Olivier's Dr. Christian Szell appears so grandfatherly with his glasses and bald head, looking like a German version of Pinocchio's father Geppetto until he springs his hidden retractable dagger from his coat sleeve. Szell is evil incarnate, a terrifying villain because he looks so harmless. When we first see Szell, he's in suspenders, baroque music playing on a phonograph but the camera pans around his room and we see skulls and human teeth and animal skins. Szell may be one of the most underrated villains in film history, no less evil than Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter, convincingly played by Olivier. Olivier had cancer while making MARATHON MAN and thought he was going to die but his cancer would go into remission and he would live another 13 years. Two years later, Olivier would go from playing the Nazi war criminal Szell to playing the Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (based on real life Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal) in THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL.
MARATHON MAN'S supporting cast is perfect with consummate pros Roy Scheider as Babe's mysterious big brother Doc and urbane William Devane (still sounding like Jack Nicholson little brother) as Doc's agency colleague and friend Peter Janeway. Schneider may have been one of the best supporting actors in the business (see THE FRENCH CONNECTION or KLUTE). He made MARATHON MAN fresh off his success in JAWS (1975). Scheider would eventually become a leading man in films like ALL THAT JAZZ (1979) and BLUE THUNDER (1983). He and Hoffman have nice chemistry as Scheider's Doc is protective of his little brother Babe. Devane's Janeway exudes Ivy League elitism. Janeway is ambiguously deceptive as most intelligence agents are. He's on both sides and neither side, climbing the corporate spook ladder to his next promotion. I was always a little surprised Devane didn't have a better film career but he has been a constant in television and cable. And Richard Bright (THE GODFATHER PART II) and Marc Lawrence (KEY LARGO) are perfect from the Rogue's Gallery of movie henchmen as Szell's muscle.
Marthe Keller as Babe's Swiss (or is she German) girlfriend Elsa had her heyday in the mid-70's. Keller appeared in MARATHON MAN as well as John Frankenheimer's BLACK SUNDAY (1977) and Sydney Pollack's BOBBY DEERFIELD (1977). In MARATHON MAN, she plays a history student who becomes Babe's nurturing lover, a role she would play again as the terrorist/lover to Vietnam Vet psycho Bruce Dern in BLACK SUNDAY. Keller's Elsa has some depth and sadness, she's not just another pretty foreign actress in an American film. Elsa's a pawn in this chess game of political intrigue.
An interesting six degrees of cinematic separation. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford would star in one of the great real life political conspiracy thrillers of all time ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976) based on Washington Post writers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's true account of Richard Nixon's presidency collapsing over the Watergate scandal. ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN screenplay was written by none other than MARATHON MAN screenwriter William Goldman. In 1975, the year before, Redford starred in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, another political conspiracy film. And then Hoffman would star in his own political conspiracy film (with a Nazi war criminal subplot) written by Goldman called MARATHON MAN. Hoffman, Redford, and Goldman all knew a good thing when they saw it with the paranoia conspiracy thrillers in light of Watergate.
MARATHON MAN is compelling but not perfect. The opening road rage scene between German and Jew is a bit contrived as the men race their cars past Orthadox Jews on the Upper East Side of New York on the day of Yom Kippur. And Babe's falling for Elsa who just happens to be Swiss was a little too convenient once we figure out Nazi Szell and Babe's brother Doc know each other. But ultimately, MARATHON MAN is a grade or two above the usual thriller because of its pedigree: Director John Schlesinger, Producer Robert Evans (who I haven't even mentioned), Screenwriter William Goldman, and a stellar cast led by Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, and Roy Scheider. MARATHON MAN is like a long distance race. It starts out slow and deliberate, building suspense, and finishes fast like a sprint.