Why I Love… #128: Marathon Man

Year: 1976

Directed: John Schlesinger

Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Roy Scheider, William Devane

In the 1970s America was wrestling with a number of demons. Vietnam. Watergate. A decade of politicised assassinations. A country that once sold itself as young and idealistic suddenly found itself wading through an antagonised adolescence (with plenty more growing pains set to come). In an era of upheaval and psychological second-guessing, its cinema was going through an invigorating rebirth. A new generation of auteur filmmakers were running amok. The Hays Code had been thrown out, the studio system had crumbled, and these upstarts gave the impression that they were ripping the band-aid off, exposing the open wounds in the American psyche.

Following Watergate, Hollywood expressed its horror through a succession of conspiracy thrillers that became stone cold classics. These days many of these titles have a layer of critical dust over them, and are perceived a little like cinematic ‘dad rock’ – the meat and potatoes of the era’s filmmaking – but this minimises a lot of the quality and edge in the movies themselves.

Alan J Pakula tapped the vein of paranoia acutely with titles like The Parallax View and All the President’s Men (the latter pointedly dramatising the Watergate scandal), while Sydney Polalck’s Three Days of the Condor showed how successfully such intrigue could be entwined with the immediacy of the action film. Marathon Man arrived a year later. It’s director, John Schlesinger, showed a similar nous for mingling these two decidedly masculine genres, while also tapping into another evolution that had been occurring over the previous decade; that of how explicit and brutal mainstream cinema could be.

In the mid-to-late ’60s, the likes of Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah had reconfigured how permissible violence could be in American entertainment. In the years following, the horror genre cracked things open even further, with the crossover successes of the likes of The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre proving there was an appetite in the wide cinematic audience for punishing, visceral thrills. Marathon Man combines all of the above into an insidiously paced and plotted assault.

The first hour feels almost maddeningly fragmented and sketchy. Its main characters seem disconnected and the film almost dawdles, in the process instilling a deliberate false sense of security.

Dustin Hoffman’s Thomas Levy is a student of history working on a doctorate about tyranny. The spectre of his deceased father – who killed himself following allegations in the McCarthy witch-hunts – hangs over his prospective career. He begins a romance with European colleague Elsa (Marthe Keller) and, for a while, this seems the extent of his significance in the picture. Half a world away in Paris, his brother, Harry (Roy Scheider), is involved in a series of covert meetings suggestive of a life in espionage or counter-intelligence. Their distance from one another makes these scenes feel disparate; geographically disconnected and lacking momentum. What does one have to do with the other? A sequence in which two aging men get into a bitter car chase on the streets of New York – one that ends in disaster for both –  feels similarly jaundiced from the remainder. Just what is the through-line here?

If that makes it sound as though Schlesinger doesn’t impress early on, that’s a misgiving. His handling of action – be it the aforementioned cantankerous car chase or simply two men jogging – is masterful.

Still, it is only when the brothers are reunited and an act of violence occurs that the film crystalises into a harrowing nightmare. Harry is killed and Thomas finds himself at the mercy of Nazi torturers led by Laurence Olivier’s maniacal dentist Szell. Harry’s business colleague at ‘Division’, Janeway (a wonderfully snide William Devane), fills us in on the real plot but has no qualms using Thomas as bait to lure out the former-Nazi in a ploy to locate plundered diamonds.

This mid-section of the movie thrums with menace, switching gears from comfy Sunday afternoon conspiracy fare into the realms of our darkest terrors. One magnetic sequence even prefigures the bathroom door busting of Kubrick’s The Shining by four years. It culminates in two justly reviled sequences in which Marathon Man weaponises dentistry as a method of torture. For all their bravura, the likes of Eli Roth and James Wan never quite hit the same nerve of bodily terror that Schlesinger cuts to here.

With this brutal eruption of violence at its core, its not surprising that the third act feels a little smaller – and Marathon Man is perhaps justifiably looked back on as a film with a signature sequence at its epicentre – but remembering it for this alone overlooks the greater significance of the film and its position in the American canon.

Marathon Man is about the psychological wounds of WWII, particularly those felt in the Jewish community, even half a world away. William Goldman’s screenplay is adapted from his own novel, and its no coincidence that brothers Thomas and Harry are of a Jewish lineage. With his brother murder, Thomas is, in turn, victimised – persecuted – and Szell’s dental equipment and his sadistic enthusiasm with it barely conceals the underlying fear of a Nazi uprising and further painful reprisals. A kind of second-hand PTSD permeates every pore. For Schlesinger and Goldman, the then still-recent horrors of Auschwitz are just reason to lay awake at night in a cold sweat.

Revisiting the film now one acknowledges that a greater period of time has passed than had initially between atrocity and this traumatic echo. But the pain of it still registers as brutal, and that’s a pain worth remembering, especially as modern-day America seems disturbingly beset by vocal neo-Nazi minorities. Marathon Man shows how trauma can transcend generation. Pain can be passed down like genes, like customs, like ethics and morality. It is something learned.

Thomas is hardened by his experiences and made furious when he discovers that all of this is over material wealth. That it is, in a sense, apolitical. That his suffering was not for ideology but for personal gain and sadistic pleasure. The final showdown between Thomas and Szell is damning of the American consumerist mentality. At gunpoint, Thomas demands that Szell literally ingests the diamonds his brother died for. Little did Goldman and Schlesinger know that this particularly Western vice would only exacerbate in the decade to come. Marathon Man feels accidentally prescient in this regard.

It’s a strange film to recommend in the same way as others that I’ve added to this series of essays. It’s not a lovable film, really. But it is an incredibly impressive one. A grey, mean, misanthropic creature, and further evidence to support the claim that the 1970s were the peak – thus far – for the American thriller.

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