Paramount // 1976 // 125 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // September 5th, 2001
Is it safe?
Complexity is not a high priority in today's cinematic fondue pot. I'm not talking about movies like Mission: Impossible, where the plot is not just complex but unnervingly incomprehensible. I'm talking about good old fashioned twisting plots that keep you riveted to your seat (one example is the intense Michael Douglas thriller The Game). Today we're bombarded by crude humor (i.e., anything by the Farrelly Brothers) and brooding plots that usually don't try to challenge the viewer, only entertain them. I'm glad to report that the intelligently fast paced Marathon Man is now available on DVD from Paramount Home Video. Starring Dustin Hoffman (Straw Dogs, Kramer vs. Kramer), Roy Scheider (Jaws, Jaws 2), William Devane (Family Plot, Payback) and Oscar nominee Lawrence Olivier (uh...anything having to do with Shakespeare), this thriller takes off and doesn't let up until its searing finale!
I am conflicted on how to describe the plot of Marathon Man. I'm going to tread lightly, for I feel this is a film best experienced knowing as little about it as possible.
Hoffman plays Thomas "Babe" Levy, a graduate student and marathon runner in New York who unwittingly gets caught up in a dangerous plot that features Nazis, crooked agents, and some nasty dental tools. His villainous foe is in the form of Christian Szell, a sadistic ex-Nazi who is looking to get back what he is owed. Babe's brother "Doc" Levy (Scheider) also seems to be in on this plot, or is he? Even Babe's French girlfriend (Marthe Keller) is acting a bit suspicious.
Babe is going to need both his wits and running shoes if he's to stay alive during one brutal night in the Big Apple.
I realize that my plot description is a bit thin, but I am doing those who haven't seen Marathon Man a favor. There are plenty of other reviews you can read that will give away all the surprises waiting for you in Marathon Man. I, however, think that this movie is best watched with little to no knowledge of the film.
I love movies like Marathon Man. These are the types of films I walk out of and wish I had written such a great story. Few movies keep me entranced and glued to my seats. In the past few years I can remember being this excited watching The Blair Witch Project, The Game, and Se7en. The screenwriter for Marathon Man and all the above said movies always keep the audience on their toes. Marathon Man was adapted from William Goldman's book of the same name. Goldman has written a slew of winning films, including Rob Reiner's Misery and The Princess Bride, as well as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President's Men. Perusing through Goldman's writing credits, I realized that this is a guy who has written a lot of fantastic movies. Marathon Man is no exception. I had no idea where Marathon Man was going to go next. Just when you think you know what's going on, Marathon Man takes a 180-degree turn and goes in a new direction. This makes for a fast and furiously fun film.
On the other hand, I'm not so sure that most people would use the word "fun" to describe a movie like Marathon Man. Relentless as it is, there is little to no humor for relief, and there were a few scenes that really made me squirm. Marathon Man is a really a very bleak look at the unity of deception and greed. The infamous dentist scene is something that will stay with me long after I've seen the movie. With a bit of the holocaust thrown in for good measure, this isn't going to be to everybody's tastes. But, for those looking for something wilder and different than most movies, Marathon Man delivers.
Lawrence Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and with good reason. His portrayal of the cruelly cunning Szell is what ultimately drives the film. His drive is based on one thing: his well-being. He shows no remorse for his Nazi actions, and will take down anything and anyone that stands in his way. Who knew that an elderly man would make such a sadistically good villain? Hoffman's performance is also good, though he almost feels slightly secondary to Olivier's Szell. Hoffman had just starred in The Graduate before Marathon Man, and I am sure it was somewhat of a shock for audiences to see Hoffman in such a uniquely different role. Marathon Man is also surrounded by a good supporting cast, including Roy Scheider as Babe's brother, and William Devane as a slimy agent who isn't what he seems.
Marathon Man is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. For some reason Marathon Man tends to look a bit soft, which I assume is the result of the use of filters during the shoot. The transfer almost has a bland documentary style to it, and the colors sometimes lean on the flat side. Other times flesh tones looked rich and vibrant. Blacks were solid and only a slight amount of edge enhancement was spotted. Overall this is an above average transfer by Paramount.
The soundtrack for Marathon Man has been re-mastered in Dolby Digital 5.1. Though that seems like a great idea, Marathon Man doesn't really benefit highly from this new remixed track. There were a few spots where the effects were used directionally, but they came few and far between. Of course, this is still a much better track then anything else available. Dialogue and effects were all mixed evenly with Michael Small's eerie music score sounding only slightly strained. Also included is a restored Dolby Digital Mono track in English, a Dolby Mono track in French, and English subtitles.
For those who really loved the movie, I'm happy to report that Paramount has included a very nice set of supplements to go along with the film. First up is an original promotional featurette from 1976 called "The Magic Of Hollywood" that features interviews with producer Robert Evens (who also narrates), actor Dustin Hoffman, and director John Schlesinger. It's a very strange feature that pats Marathon Man on the back a lot. There are some behind-the-scenes glimpses, and though this is a very scratchy full frame presentation, it's pretty entertaining.
Another feature is the 30-minute "Going The Distance: Remembering Marathon Man." Much like "The Magic of Hollywood," "Going The Distance: Remembering Marathon Man" includes reflective interviews with Dustin Hoffman, writer William Goldman, producer Robert Evens, actor Roy Scheider, actress Marthe Keller, and more. The feature is basically a reminiscing of the production of the film by those who made it happen. Sorely missed is director Schlesinger, but even without his cooperation this feature is a nice look back on the making of the film.
A section featuring 20 minutes of rehearsal footage will entertain those looking to see the actors working on their craft (Hoffman is a big improvisational actor, where as Olivier wasn't). Personally I didn't find this to be a very exciting feature, though it's nice to have on the disc. Finally there is an anamorphic theatrical trailer for Marathon Man. Make sure to watch this trailer after you see the movie, as it takes away from much of the surprise in Marathon Man.
For those of you looking for zing-zam-boom Michael Bay-like action, Marathon Man may disappoint. However, if you're ready to think and be riveted, you're going to like Marathon Man. I do think that a commentary track by writer Goldman or director John Schlesinger would have given some great insights into the story, but I guess you can't always get everything you want.
Not knowing a whole lot going into Marathon Man, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie. Everyone gives standout performances, the highlight being Olivier's chilling personification of evil, Szell. Paramount has done a great job on this disc, even if the video is not up the quality one would desire. The extra features help make this worth the purchase price. Just don't watch this movie before you visit your local dentist.
It's safe...Marathon Man is a great movie for thriller fans everywhere!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* Rehearsal Footage
* Original "Making Of Marathon Man" Featurette
* "Going The Distance: Remembering Marathon Man" Featurette