Marathon Man

The William Goldman Blogathon

Welcome to the William Goldman blogathon hosted by Rebecca and Taking Up Room. Adapted by Goldman from his novel, Marathon Man (1976) is an entertaining thriller from the pen of one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood history. He won Academy Awards for both his original screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) reviewed by The Midnite Drive-in and his adaptation of All the President’s Men (1976) reviewed by Taking Up RoomMarathon‘s plot is convoluted and the story becomes implausible at times but that just adds to the fun.The film also boasts one of the most terrifying and talked about scenes of the 1970s. Directed by John Schlesinger, it reunites the British born director of the Oscar winning Midnight Cowboy (1969) with star Dustin Hoffman.

In the film, Thomas Babbington “Babe” Levy (Hoffman) is a New York grad student and marathon runner. Hoffman still looked young enough to be credible as a college age scholar/athlete. His brother Doc (Roy Scheider) isn’t much older but is a full-fledged, suit and tie wearing adult and has a responsible job with the government. Both brothers are haunted by the suicide of their father who was hounded by the government.

Roy Scheider and Laurence Olivier

Doc’s contacts are unsavory characters who aren’t squeamish about using violence to get what they want. The worst of them is a fugitive Nazi, Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier). Almost as bad is Doc’s duplicitous handler Peter Janeway, played by JFK impersonator William Devane.

There’s a thriller’s equivalent of a romantic comedy’s meet cute between Babe and a German accented femme fatale named Elisa (Marthe Keller). In the university library, Babe is smitten. Forgetting about his research for a moment, he makes his move.

She’s resistant at first and when he shows up at her flat on the thinnest of pretexts, she all but accuses him of stalking her. She resists the awkward overture but warms up on their next meeting. A scene or two later, they’re in bed together which, we might surmise, is how things were done in the seventies.

Babe shows her off to Doc who takes an instant dislike to her, finds her answers to his simple questions deceptive and suspects her of being a foreign agent. Babe thinks Doc is paranoid until Doc shows up at his apartment bleeding from multiple wounds.

Goldman’s characters are richly drawn and believable even in incredible circumstances. The action plays out against a backdrop of terrorism and espionage. Bombs go off. People are chased, shot, stabbed and tortured without mercy.

When Marathon Man was made, only thirty years had passed since the end of World War II. The idea of a Nazi torturer surfacing somewhere wasn’t that far-fetched. The Boys from Brazil (1978) with Gregory Peck and again with Lord Olivier had a similar Nazis-in-exile theme.

As with the classic The Big Sleep (1946) it’s best to simply watch Marathon‘s plot unfold without worrying too much about the lapses in logic and continuity. Enjoy the thrilling performances of the always good Hoffman and Keller. Sometimes accused of over acting, Olivier tones it down here and becomes a villain who’s every bit the stuff nightmares are made of..