There’s something about a thriller that leeches off the anxiety and unrest of whatever traumatised decade it originated from that you just can’t beat. In a time when movie stars still could vaguely pass as someone you might see on the street and the streets themselves look like godforsaken shitholes, John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man remains a nail bitingly tangible experience that paradoxically remains both unbelievably feasible and realistically far-fetched.
Taking the well-worn trope of a reasonable every-man stumbling onto some sort of heinous conspiracy and turning it into some unending nightmare where anyone is liable to be crushed under fate’s capricious boot heel, the movie unleashes Nazi war criminals, double agents, devilish coincidences and a genuinely terrifying misuse of dental equipment to create a unsettling adventure straight out of a paranoid nightmare.
After a racial bout of road rage ends with a Jewish man and a German man burnt alive after a head on collision with a fuel truck, seemingly unrelated events unspool at a chaotic rate to create a living hell for nebbish history student Thomas Babington “Babe” Levy. The dead German guy turns out to be Klaus Szell, the brother of infamous Nazi war criminal Christian Szell, who has been hiding in South America and living comfortably by the selling of Jewish diamonds he took from the victims of Auschwitz and his fricasseed sibling was instrumental in the selling of them. Unnerved by this turn of events and convinced his network of couriers will no doubt try to steal from him, Szell orders the assassinations of anyone involved in the operation of buying or delivering of the diamonds and this is where Henry “Doc” Levy comes in. You see, Doc is actually an government operative working for a secret agency who is undercover as one of the couriers in order to smoke the Nazi out and the sudden murders of other people who’s handled those diamonds makes him suspicious enough that when a killer comes for him, he’s ready enough to successfully fight them off and go on the run. Using a visit to his brother, Babe, as a cover for his return to New York, Doc reports back to his superior, Commander Janeway, but in a ballsy move, Szell has also come to the Big Apple too in order to reclaim his diamonds from a safety deposit box and attempt to look into selling them himself.
As the plot tightens like a garrote and tragedies occur, Babe finds everyone’s attention falling on him simply by association and soon finds himself slap bang in the middle of a dangerous situation that literally has nothing to so with him. Considering Babe was somewhat tightly wound to start with, paranoia starts doing a number on him as his mysterious enemies close in.
Perfectly paced and dedicated to making you squirm, Marathon Man seemingly delights in taking all of the political and social turmoil that was broiling to the surface at the time (Strikes and protesters are seemingly everywhere and doom laden news reports play subliminally in the background) and every bystander in the film seem to be pumped full of righteous anger and ready to blow at the slightest provocation. Into this grimy mess that is 70’s New York, we find Babe, a man positively puppeteered by his demons who is literally racing to live in his deceased father’s shadow by emulating every part of his life from punishing marathon training to writing a paper about the McCarthy witch trials which cause him to shoot himself. Simply put, he’s the perfect person to drip into the middle of labyrinthine series of events that ends up dumping everything on his fidgety shoulders and in many ways it’s the role Dustin Hoffman was born to play. Not gifted of the poise and classic good looks of, say, Robert Redford in Three Days Of The Condor, Bane looks like he could barely survive a mugging, let alone torture by hollow-cheeked goons and this vulnerability is only heightened by his clumsy chatting up of fellow student Elsa or his inability to be a charismatic as his diametrically opposite brother, Doc, played with typically swaggering by Roy Scheider. However, even though Babe seems to be the only one present who is willing to openly admit how deep out of his comfort zone he is, something else William Goldsmith’s screenplay does really well is have all the other characters fuck up on a semi regular basis due to over confidence or just bad information. Lawrence Olivier’s arch Nazi-bastard may grip the screen with a character with all the love of humankind as an overworked scorpion, but he’s still not above succumbing to risking everything by wandering through a Jewish district in order to enquire about diamond rates and the fact that even the villain is put in situations that would make him empty himself like a WWII bomber means that everything feels more real and desperate.
Adding to the oppressive nature, Schlesinger stages a lot of the action in a way that couldn’t be more removed from the usual type of spy antics and instead stages some of the more stressful moments like some sort of waking nightmare. Take the scene when a white-eyed assassin glares at Doc through a curtain like a malevolent ghost, or the moment when Babe, as vunerable as you could possibly get thanks to being naked and in the bath, realises there’s someone in his house is like something right out of a horror movie and as his screams for help are ignored by a typically uninterested 70’s New York, a crowbar starts working the bathroom door completely off its hinges. It feels far more The Shining (made four years later, mind) than James Bond and while that legendary secret, martini gulping agent gets tortured over shark pits and with groin slicing lasers, Marathon Man swipes them all aside with one of the most iconic torture sequences ever put on film.
First jabbing at a cavity and then going on to drill some excruciating holes of his own, Olivier’s passive and repeated question of “Is it safe?” as he gets to work on Hoffman’s pearly whites is remorseless, especially when you realise that the question he’s being asked means absolutely nothing to him and surely dentist appointments took as much as a hit in 1976 as showering or beach visits did the years Psycho and Jaws infected the world with second hand trauma. The movie is extra cruel when its gleefully removing every shred of hope from its horribly unprepared protagonist, take the moment when he’s “saved” by Janeway only to find it’s a ruse and the grinning double agent is simply another way to work out “is it safe”, or the fact that even his girlfriend is in on it – leaving Babe far more alone than when the film even started.
Tweaking Hollywood conventions just enough to feel agonisingly unpredictable, Marathon Man is not only one of the greatest thrillers ever made, but it’s a weirdly satisfying example of the worm turning as the jittery student finally gets to control the situation with the very gun his father killed himself with.
As vital and unnerving as it ever was, Marathon Man is a casually brutal thriller that’s destined to run and run.