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Marathon Man

Paramount // R // August 28, 2001
List Price: $9.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Louis Howard | posted September 1, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Is it safe?

-is a chilling phrase that American moviegoers have known for some thirty years now, perhaps on a par with "rosebud" in cinematic recognition thanks to the film Marathon Man. A gripping thriller directed by John Schlesinger, graduate student Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a passive soul, brooding and tormented after the suicide of his father, an accused Communist. He is thrown into a world far from the quiet one he has known when his "grey area" government agent brother Doc (Roy Scheider) is murdered by a former Nazi concentration camp dentist/sadist named Szell (Sir Laurence Olivier..after 1970 Lord Laurence Olivier), who has been forced to come out of hiding in order to reclaim an incredible wealth of diamonds, presumably spoils of Holocaust victims and long ago stashed in a New York City safety deposit bank. A wounded Doc manages to get to Babe's apartment only to die in his arms; fearful that Doc has told his brother where the diamonds are, Szell quickly kidnaps Babe, dragging him into a world of pain and torture. Somehow escaping the clutches of both Szell as well as American government henchmen, he must use guile, cunning and ultimately violence in order to simply stay alive.

At the time this movie was released there were some ever growing phobias among the masses; on the heels of Watergate, government agencies came under more suspicion and scrutiny. Distrusted by the public more than ever, it was a perception that continues to hold plenty of water in the present; it was easily believable that there may be some grey area agencies taking care of things that the CIA and FBI weren't handling, or even privy to. This period was also one in which many stories were making the rounds about former Nazis not merely on the run, but on the loose and creating further world chaos all the while comfortably nestled in South America- living luxuriously off the spoils of their war victims, Holocaust and otherwise. What Marathon Man manages to do is capitalize on both premises, weaving a workable plot that is highly intriguing and entertaining with its diverse cast of characters. An evil Nazi Superman rising from nowhere in order to further accommodate his twisted, luxurious retirement with an inordinate amount of ill-attained wealth, but running into ever more complications along the way to the safety deposit box; the well heeled, savvy government agent who seems to be working all angles of the playing field;and the guilt ridden, purpose driven student determined to use political academic knowledge in hopes of someday exonerating his father, who committed suicide after coming under the scrutiny of McCarthyism. The younger Levy also uses long distance running as catharsis, a way to keep his sanity but in the long run, his most precious of tools with which to survive.

This film does several things right in this reviewer's eyes. Rather than show the Big Apple in a glamorous light, the depiction of New York feels utterly ethnic, grimy, average, a predatory city crawling with everyday Joes living in run down old neighborhoods and crummy little apartments such as the one Babe Levy does here. There are plenty of local thieves and scum to be wary of, making little secret of the fact and in fact priding themselves in their occupations, keeping a guy like Babe on his toes and wary to so much as walk into his own apartment building, knowing he'll be harassed by street thugs. Ironically they come in immensely useful for him later on, further sign of Levy's ability to use what tools are given him in order to outwit his opponents. While he has always been a driven, bright young man, here he is forced to implement intelligence with wiles and street smarts in order to get through the ordeal he is thrown into. Levy may be cerebral, but his aptitude for adaptation is what becomes increasingly fun to watch.

These days amassing a great cast such as this seems ever less common, but at the time Marathon Man was released this was less problematic, possibly because of the sheer number of both young and old notable actors plying their trade at a busier pace and asking for less pay during that period. At the time Marathon Man was filmed the starring principals here were proving to be at the top of their game; Hoffman was coming off of an Oscar nominated take in Lenny, and would receive another nomination for his role here. Scheider had starred in the blockbuster Jaws the year before. Their pairing as brothers is inspired, as the two do bear a physical resemblance with dark features and extremely lean bodies, though it is a bit difficult seeing a then-39 year old Hoffman being portrayed as a college student. Olivier as the vicious Nazi concentration camp dentist is particularly delicious, and praiseworthy enough to have won him a Golden Globe award for best supporting actor as well as an Oscar nomination. The unlikely pairing of Hoffman and Olivier as adversaries is intriguing on many levels; Szell is an accomplished murderer of the most notorious ilk, and the nonchalant manner in which he toys with Babe is chilling; indeed, if people weren't afraid of a visit to the dentist before this film, they certainly had reason for pause afterwards. In a manner somewhat more subtle than Hoffman's character in Straw Dogs, the passive, quiet Babe becomes ever more dangerous prey for Szell and the agents to hunt.

The DVD-

Oddly, MGM recently released screener copies of Marathon Man to various sites for review; I was hoping we would see something in the way of an improvement over what has been available on disc before. Actually, this IS what has been available all along. Same cover, extras, with nothing in the way of video or audio improvement that I can see; I pulled my old copy of Marathon Man off the shelves to compare the two; they're the same 2001 release. Possibly Paramount is sending this out to test the waters for a 30th anniversary SE, or simply wanted to keep Hoffman's works fresh on the buyers' minds to help sell more copies of the recent SE release of The Graduate.


Aspect ratio here is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. While the print is fairly free of dirt and damage, it really isn't one to get excited over; colors seem a bit washed out, but in all fairness this is a dingy, gritty film anyway. Sharpness is really only slightly above adequate. Five years ago a transfer such as this would more than satisfy viewers, but compared to similar present day releases of such material the video quality is pretty average. I can live with this transfer, but would double dip on an improved one in a heartbeat.


Audio tracks available here are Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and French Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Nothing spectacular and actually a bit on the thin side, this is an adequate track with dialog easy to understand.


The Magic Of Hollywood- Coming in at just over 20 minutes, this is an entertaining little documentary about the making of the movie. Mostly interviews and very much indicative of promotional pieces made during the time period.
Remembering "Marathon Man"-Clocking in at just under 30 minutes, this is a somewhat recent documentary with Roy Scheider, writer William Goldman and producer Robert Evans reminiscing about getting the project off the ground and making the film. All here give some pretty interesting insights and tell some fun stories about the production period; its definitely worth checking out.
Rehearsal Footage-A 21 minute documentary, this shows rehearsal footage from the set.

Final Thoughts-

While Marathon Man has its share of flaws and lags, the film manages to shine with wonderful performances throughout. There were many fine thrillers produced during the period in which Marathon Man came to light, but the chemistry between all involved here is what sets it apart from the others. If you bought this in the last five years, to my knowledge you already have the same edition I'm reviewing here. Even if this edition in itself leaves something to be desired, the low MSRP makes it a no brainer to recommend to those who don't already own the movie, and I would highly recommend it if given a better looking transfer.
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