Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, William Devane, Marthe Keller, Fritz Weaver, Richard Bright, Marc Lawrence
William Goldman (and novel)
When justice is blind, it knows no fear.
From William Goldman's best-selling novel comes one of the most daring and affecting thrillers ever brought to the screen. Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman plays the likeable graduate student and marathon runner of the title, unwillingly trapped in a killing game of intrigue involving a Nazi fugitive, Christian Szell. Laurence Olivier received an Academy Award nomination for his chilling portrayal of the sadistic Szell, who turns dental instruments into tools of torture with dispassionate ease. Directed by John Schlesinger and featuring an all-star cast, Marathon Man moves with nail-biting suspense to its thrilling, fever-pitched conclusion. Co-starring Roy Scheider and William Devane.
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Runtime: 125 min.
Release Date: 8/28/2001
• “The Magic of Hollywood” Original “Making Of” Program
• “Going the Distance: Remembering Marathon Man” Featurette
• Rehearsal Footage
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Marathon Man (1976)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 27, 2008)
When acting giants of different generations work together, the results tend to either soar or fall flat; these encounters rarely land in the middle ground. For an example of a successful collaboration, we head to 1976’s thriller Marathon Man, a flick that paired Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman.
An elderly German man named Klaus Szell (Ben Dova) withdraws a mysterious package from a safe deposit box in New York. He passes it on to someone else, but when he gets in an argument with another old man, Szell dies in a fiery car crash and the box’s key goes with him.
The package turns up again Paris with Henry “Doc” Levy (Roy Scheider), a “businessman” who works in a shady, dangerous field. He undergoes many threats to his life before he finally escapes and flies to New York, where he reunites with his younger brother Thomas “Babe” Levy (Hoffman). A doctoral candidate obsessed with clearing the name of his late father, a man accused during the 1950s Communist witch-hunt, Babe has recently started a romance with Swiss student Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller).
In the meantime, Szell’s brother Christian (Olivier) also comes to New York. Best known as notorious Nazi war criminal “Der Weisse Engel”, Christian arrives to take care of business connected to that mysterious package and the remaining contents of the safe deposit box. The film follows all the related intrigue as well as Babe’s unwitting – and dangerous – involvement in all of this.
I first encountered Marathon Man back in college during the mid-1980s. I knew virtually nothing about the flick, but it played at the student union, so a friend and I decided to give it a look. I left the screening wholly impressed, as this little unknown quantity provided a brisk, enthralling piece of drama.
More than two decades later, I don’t know if I still dig Marathon quite as much, but I think the film has a lot going for it. The flick grabs us right out of the gate. During its first few minutes, we see an improbable car battle between two elderly men, a tussle that ends with their fiery demise in a crash. That’s not material that comes on screen everyday, and the wild nature of this segment proves downright arresting. If the film starts with such vivid material, we feel the need to see where else it will lead.
It turns out the story takes us in a dark direction. The viewer can clearly feel the cynical, paranoid tone of post-Watergate America in Marathon. No one can be trusted, and even the innocent aren’t safe. Babe acts as the viewer’s proxy. In true Hitchcockian fashion, he undergoes all sorts of unpleasantness even though he maintains no knowledge of the sordid events below the surface.
Which brings us to the movie’s most enduring line: “Is it safe?” This comes out during one of film history’s most chilling torture scenes, and it becomes a memorable catchphrase. The movie depicts the terror Babe experiences well, largely because it doesn’t telegraph the nastiness. Director John Schlesinger plays things cool and effectively puts us in the dentist chair with Babe as Christian toys with him.
It helps that Schlesinger establishes a hostile environment from the flick’s very start. Within its first 15 minutes or so, we witness many glimpses of a society in chaos. People treat each other horribly and basics like garbage collection and whatnot break down and cause havoc. The film’s world is a cold, antagonistic place in which no one can trust anyone else or expect any assistance from others. This tone sets us on edge from the start, and it never really subsides; Schlesinger maintains a serious aura of tension even in the most innocuous sequences.
To a person, the actors support the film well. Olivier earned an Oscar nomination as Szell, and he deserved it. Ironically, Sir Larry would play a Jewish Nazi hunter two years later in The Boys from Brazil, a performance that suffered from too much hamminess. No such over-acting mars his work as Szell. Olivier doesn't appear in much of the film, but when he does show up, he provides a chilling, forceful presence. Heck, it’s worth the price of admission just to see him go Wolverine on some guy!
My only complaint about Marathon comes from its intensely muddled story. I’ve seen it five or six times over the last couple of decades and I still can’t make head or tails of much of it. I’m not sure the filmmakers understand the plot either, and in the end, it really doesn’t matter; that safe deposit box is really a MacGuffin to motivate all the events around it. Still, a little more clarity would be nice, as the movie’s confusing nature can make it a bit off-putting.
That concern notwithstanding, I find a lot to like about Marathon Man. The movie provides a tense character piece bolstered by excellent acting. This is an experience that will stick with you for a while.
The DVD Grades: Picture D+/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-
Marathon Man appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. A mix of problems marred the transfer.
Many of these related to sharpness. Close-ups usually appeared reasonably concise, but much of the remaining material tended to be soft and indistinct. Moderate edge enhancement contributed to this. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, but source flaws became a frequent distraction. I noticed quite a few examples of specks, marks, blemishes, streaks and other debris. These weren’t constant problems, but they cropped up regularly.
Dark 1970s thrillers like this don’t come with dynamic palettes, so the chilly hues of Marathon matched its tone. Even within those parameters, though, I thought the colors were a bit drab. They never seemed poor, but they lacked even the minor life I anticipated from them. Blacks tended to be fairly flat and dull, while shadows looked dense and overly opaque; low-light shots could be rather tough to discern. I never thought this was an unwatchable transfer, but it suffered from too many issues to earn a grade over a “D+”.
Taken from the original monaural soundtrack – which also appeared here – the new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix came with its own problems. However, it also boasted some strengths, primarily from the quality of the music. The flick didn’t feature a lot of score, but when the music cropped up, it sounded quite bright and vivid. Those aspects of the track easily stood as its best assets.
The rest of the mix didn’t sound nearly as good. Speech tended to be brittle and tinny, with some edginess along the way. Effects appeared thin and hollow, and the louder elements displayed moderate distortion. The music defied the age of the source material, but the other parts of the track felt old.
The 5.1 soundfield opened up matters to a decent degree. The front speakers showed nice stereo imaging for the music and also broadened environmental elements. These didn’t do a whole lot, but they added a little space to matters. The surrounds mostly remained passive; I noticed them during a scene with thunder, but otherwise they stayed with minor reinforcement at most. The mildly spacious soundfield and the high-quality music made this a “B-“ soundtrack, but the other aspects disappointed.
A few extras fill out the set. A vintage “making of” piece called The Magic of Hollywood lasts 21 minutes, 12 seconds as it mixes movie clips, shots from the set, and remarks from producer Robert Evans, director John Schlesinger, stunt coordinator Everett Creach, and actors Dustin Hoffman and Marthe Keller. The program gives us some notes about getting a cast and crew, sets and locations, performances, stunts, and a few shoot specifics.
Like most promotional programs of this sort, “Magic” tends toward happy talk and hyperbole. However, it manages to provide some good tidbits nonetheless. We get a lot of cool footage from the set, and a few of the interview comments prove insightful too. This is an up and down piece, but it generally works pretty well.
Next comes the 29-minute and five-second Remembering Marathon Man. It includes Evans, Hoffman, Keller, screenwriter William Goldman, and actor Roy Scheider. The show examines the project’s path to the screen and the adaptation of the source novel, how Schlesinger came onto the flick and his style on the set, cast and performances, changes to the scripted ending, and reactions to the movie. “Remembering” provides a good recap of some production elements. In particular, it offers a nice look at the actors, especially via many sweet and informative stories about Olivier. There’s a lot to like about this satisfying piece.
In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, we find 21 minutes and three seconds of rehearsal footage. These clips show comments from Evans, Heller, and Scheider. We see rehearsals of the scenes in which Babe first asks out Elsa, Doc’s surprise visit to Babe, Elsa and Babe stroll and chat on an early date, and lunch with Doc, Babe and Elsa. The notes from the participants add a little perspective, but the rehearsal sequences are the best part of this component. It’s especially interesting to see how they differ from the scenes in the final flick; in particular, the one in which Babe asks out Elsa substantially alters what we see in the film. This is a very cool supplement.
The first – and last – cinematic pairing of Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier turned into a minor classic. Marathon Man suffers from a convoluted plot but succeeds due to its solid acting and tense nature. The DVD provides generally poor picture as well as erratic audio and a small but interesting set of extras. I can’t say I’m wild about this release, but I like the movie well enough to endorse it, especially since you can get it for less than $10.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4.5 Stars
| Number of Votes: 8