Salient. Official Newspaper of Victoria University Students Assn. Volume 40 Number 2. Feb 7 1977
Review — Marathon Man:
Babe (Dustin Hoffman) is an outstanding history student, the son of a brilliant historian driven to suicide by McCarthyism. His desire is to run the marathon, for which he is in arduous training. His obsession however, is to vindicate his father of crimes for which history has long since atoned.
Szell (Laurence Olivier) is 'probably the most wanted Nazi alive', and after thirty years of recluse in the Uruguayan jungle is still the nastiest niece of work on two legs. His profession, whose possibilities are not left entirely to the imagination (although the censor has done his bit), is dentistry. The crossing of their paths provides the story for an absolutely first-rate thriller.
Unfortunately Schlesinger has more profound ambitions. The weakness of his earlier film, Sunday Bloody Sunday, was that the theme backfired on itself. In setting the frustrating pettiness of individual preoccupations against the major social issues of the day, he wound himself into a corner where he didn't really have much to say, but tried desperately to say it all the same. Marathon Man suffers from the opposite extreme. Schlesinger now has an enormous theme on his hands, and yet the genre prohibits its proper development. For this film is about nothing less than man's need to define himself in the conditions in which he exists, on both an individual and social level.
Babe must recognise that his self-imosed academic task can serve no purpose and is crippling his own intellectual perspective. When fascism arrives in his doorway he has no choice but to leave his books and to fight, not against a principle but simply for his own survival. This, of course, is what Szell has been doing ever since 1945. The difference is that Szell's perception of the whole world in terms of his own cruel self, and the resultant constant fear which is his sole motivating force mean that for him the fighting is all. Babe's struggle becomes one of self-realisation a movement towards equilibrium with himself.
All this works very well to a point. The film is at its best when the suspense is in full flight: Szell hurrying through Brooklyn's Jewish Quarter, the final showdown, etc. When it subsides into psychological study the weaknesses come to the fore. For example, to the sardonic remark of a mercenary-type sidekick, 'I believe in my country,' Szell replies with dead seriousness, 'So did we all.' An important consideration perhaps, but in Marathon Man such elements are merely distracting. In the end, the motif of life as an endurance race which must be run facing forwards becomes unnecessary, to say the least.
Nevertheless, for all his trouble with theme, Schlesinger is a master of story-teller, and in this film both his sense of rhythm and his atmospheric talents are superb. A direct correlation with Sunday Bloody Sunday can in these respects be observed. Both films open with multiple storylines whose links are unexplained. Both use music as a vitally strategic component. The same tracking camera, in medium or close shot, lingers on shop windows and the faces of passers-by. The combination in the opening sequences of Marathon Man of innocence, ominence and perplexity develops near the end into pure menace, yet all the while retains the wonderful sensual quality of the earlier film.
Marathon Man begins with sepia footage of the great marathon runner Abebe Bikila, then cuts to Babe running in Central Park. When later he is fleeing for his life and we again see Bikila in action, the pulsing beauty of the movement serves as a magnificent counterpoint to the terror of the moment. Similarly, our introduction to Szell is accompanied by a camera slowly panning over animals' skulls, all with enormous bared fangs. In the most stunning shot of the film we see a fluorescent red fountain in long shot, surrounded by massive, shadowy architectural forms. Beneath this image of pure evil, waits Szell. The sensual evocation of both characters is far more important to the film than the psychological dissertation of the whole.
Olivier rises to the occasion brilliantly. His ageing, hate-filled Nazi is blessedly devoid of all fastidiousness, kindliness, harmless indulgence, and all the other usual earmarks of the role. He works on the level of gut emotional response, with results at once spine-chilling and totally enthralling. Hoffman although very good, cannot match his own definitive performance of this role (in Straw Dogs), and seems a little baffled alongside Sir Larry.
It may be that a film employing a simple modus operandi needs some semblance of depth even though that semblance will be discarded and left relatively unexplored. But whether because of or despite its pretensions/possibilities above its station, Marathon Man remains essentially a no-nonsence thriller and one of the very best.