Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Marathon Man: Way Different Than The Princess Bride

marathon man,movie poster

Hey, look at that, we're back in the 1970s again. After yesterday's brief foray into the movies of the 2000s, the next film on my Netflix queue was the 1976 paranoid thriller Marathon Man. You may not know this, but William Goldman wrote the novel that this movie is based upon. William Gibson is most well known for writing The Princess Bride, later made into a movie movie of the same name. Marathon Man has no similarities in plot or characterization whatsoever to his more famous work. However, it isn't a bad movie, and is actually quite taut with tension and paranoia at times, with some great performances by Dustin Hoffman, Roy Scheider, and Laurence Olivier.

Marathon Man was directed by John Schleisinger, and was released in 1976. Hoffman plays Thomas "Babe" Levy, a History PhD candidate nearly obsessed with his father's suicide due to his implication in the McCarthy hearings. His brother Doc (Scheider) is a covert government agent, assigned to courier a large cache of diamonds. The diamonds are the property of Dr. Szell (Olivier), a former Nazi. When his brother (played by, I shit you not, Ben Dover) is killed in a car accident, he needs to come take care of the diamonds. For some reason, Babe is targeted by Dr. Szell, and Doc is murdered. An amateur marathon runner, Babe needs to stop running and face things head on, regardless of the dangers and consequences.

marathon man,dustin hoffman

Thrillers in the '70s are so much different than contemporary thrillers. They leave much more to the imagination, and rely much more upon editing techniques, camera angles, music, and pacing, and not just shocks, violence, and special effects. The most memorable (and oft-imitated/parodied) scene in the film is an especially chilling dental torture scene, where Szell tries to extract information from Babe, repeating the phrase "Is it safe?" in an increasingly disturbing manner. There's not a lot of gross close-ups of metal hooks dragging slowly and agonizingly across teeth, rending gums in a gush of blood, the screech of metal on bone like fingernails on chalkboard. Just a subtle medium shot, decently long takes, the uncomfortable repetition of "Is it safe?" and Hoffman's agonized howls, and infantile dependance and desire for relief in the form of oil of cloves. Unfortunately, he doesn't know anything, and doesn't know whether it's safe" or not. He briefly is rescued by his brother Doc's superior Janeway (William Devane), who is also hinted to be Doc's boyfriend. (In an earlier scene, he's talking to someone named "Janey" on the phone, and when Janeway introduces himself to Babe, he calls himself Janey.) Janeway turns out to be a double agent, working with Szell all along, and brings Babe back to the terror dentist for more torture.

Of course, there's also a conniving and deceitful foreign woman. She pretends to be interested in Babe, in order to get closer to him, and get more information (they assume Doc has filled him in on the situation, even though he didn't know Doc was even in the government until after he died). Doc realizes there's something suspicious about her and catches her in a lie during an interesting dinner scene where Hoffman's character is wearing a polo shirt with a bow tie, and a hideous tan-plaid blazer.

Maybe I wasn't paying too close attention, or maybe I'm just a little sleepy, but I couldn't really figure out why Szell needed to be an ex-Nazi, and why they kept bringing up Babe and Doc's father, his suicide, and the McCarthy hearings. The diamonds could just as easily have been from some random guy, some German criminal, or pretty much anybody. I fail to see how it makes a difference, or enhances the story whatsoever. I might have to watch it again at some point and see if there was some connection that I missed the first time around. To some extent, there's an interesting commentary going on: Szell goes to the Diamond district to get some information on how much the diamonds would be worth, where he encounters Jews pretty much everywhere, much to his dismay. Even more disturbing, an old woman seems to recognize him as a Nazi, and one man directly confronts him about it. In the opening scene, when his brother is killed in a car accident, it's a semi-humorous car chase scene between him and an elderly Jewish man, in a bizarre road rage scene. Other than that, I can't really see how it matters.

dustin hoffman,marathon man

The best part of the movie, to me, is how bad-ass Dustin Hoffman can be. I'm not used to him being presented as a character than can kick anyone's ass, or can be somewhat vicious or clever in any way. After pretty much everyone except Szell and Babe are killed in some manner, Babe hunts the crazy Nazi-dentist down, taking him hostage and bringing him to the pump rooms in the Central Park reservoir. There, he tosses diamonds like confetti into the water, just to drive Szell crazy. He then tells Szell that he can take away as many diamonds he can carry... so long as he eats them (he the commands him in German, as well, to "Essen!"). The formerly diamond-hungry Nazi manages to force one down before stopping. After a brief tussle, where Szell tries to slice up Babe with a retractable blade he has concealed within his coat (a really cool little killing gadget that isn't really explained or given particular attention, which is odd), and Babe throws the briefcase down the stairs. The diamonds (and the coffee cans and random tins that had held the diamonds) go flying into the water. In trying to chase after them, he falls, killing himself with his own blade. Babe leaves him floating facedown in the water. Verdict: Totally badass.

If you haven't seen a thriller made prior to 1995, I suggest checking this movie out. If you're a fan of The Princess Bride, check this out, too, since it was based on a book by the same author. I think it's interesting when authors have such variation in their work. It has its weird moments, some moments of extreme discomfort and tension, as well as some great performances (especially Hoffman's method acting performance, where he would really run before out-of-breath scenes so it was real, and who really wanted to be held underwater as long as he could stand during a bathtub drowning attempt scene). I give it four kick-ass Dustin Hoffmans out of five, or four Nazi dentists out of five.

Just ask yourself: Is it safe?

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