‘A thriller’ was how the posters humble-bragged the content of John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man back in 1976; there is a sense in which this William Goldman scripted film is the ultimate in thrills, since cinema turned abruptly towards family fare post-Star Wars. Goldman’s book was clearly designed with the big-screen in mind, and producer Robert Evans pulled all the strings to make Marathon man a real event picture; Schlesinger re-united with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman, plus Roy Schneider from Jaws, and with a villainous turn from Laurence Olivier as the Nazi-war criminal Szell.
One critic described the result as a ‘Jewish revenge fantasy’, which seems in line with the Seth Rogen line from Knocked up that Munich was ‘Rambo for Jews’; Marathon Man might seem pulpy, but it’s got dark undercurrents. Babe (Hoffman) is a history student whose father killed himself as a result of McCarthyism; the weight of history is heavy on his shoulders as he jogs around the Central Park reservoir in NYC. Babe has no concept that his brother Doc (Scheinder) is involved with the CIA, but also, crucially, has no idea that American intelligence might be aware of the activities of WWII Nazis, specifically Szell, and might be complicity working with them. Goldman’s script suggests that such an alliance occurs because ‘business is business’, but his disapproval is obvious. Szell comes to NYV to retrieve diamonds after his brother dies, but thinks babe has information that he needs to collect, and the stage is set for a cat and mouse chase between the guilty Nazi and the innocent Babe.
William Devane was not the big draw here amongst the acting heavyweights, but he’s got a crucial role as Peter Janeway; the ‘is it safe?’ torture scene is legendary, but part of it’s power comes from Babe getting rescued by Janeway, without reasoning that Janeway’s friendly behaviour is as much part of the torture as Szell’s drilling. Thus, audiences who felt that they, like Babe, had escaped the worst, found themselves plunged back into a nightmare of raw nerves and bloody sinks. That visceral charge is real, but springs from a political pivot that suggests that money and morals don’t mix well.
Marathon Man is a class act, for the acting, sure, but also for early Steadicam use on the streets of New York, some excellent location work, and Schlesinger’s eye for detail, which makes the thriller elements all the more powerful. The ending is botched, as is the key scene in which Doc faces off with another assassin; Doc loses some of his complexity, and babe is denied his revenge. Both sets of changes weaken the film, but Marathon Man has style and content to burn. Goldman suggests that no-man can escape history, and worries away at the notion that capitalism’s rewards are desired by the moral and immoral alike.