Thursday, February 3, 2011

Marathon Man

After his award-winning and iconic performance in Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman's career changed.  In the 90s, some of his more memorable performances were the colorful characters in Hook, Wag the Dog, and Dick Tracy, while his post-2000 output is split between "quirky" and voice-over work for children's movies.  In other words, his characters have become more "characters" than people.  For anyone just reaching adulthood (which would mean that they were born in 1993, which makes me feel older than the pyramids), Dustin Hoffman has always been a silly, short actor.  When I watched Marathon Man recently, it reminded me just how good Hoffman once was at portraying the everyman.

This movie doesn't introduce the audience to Hoffman's character right away.  Instead, it focuses on a case of road rage between an elderly German-American and an elderly Jewish-American that results in both drivers being killed in a collision with an oil truck.  And my wife wonders why I hate driving in the city.  It takes a while before the importance of that incident becomes clear, but I'll save you the suspense.  The German was the brother of Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), an infamous Nazi doctor.  Szell's brother would cash in his brother's stolen treasures from the war and send the money by courier to Szell in his well-protected South American home.  Without his brother to turn the goods into money, Szell must risk a return to America, or else be killed by his protectors when his money runs out.

Doc (Roy Scheider) works as a CIA operative, with one of his responsibilities being to help Szell; in exchange for transferring the money to Szell, the US government would get information about surviving Nazi war criminals from Szell.  But the CIA doesn't care enough about Szell to protect him any more.  To make sure that Doc doesn't impede his plan, Szell fatally wounds him.  Doc manages to make his way all the way across New York City to his brother, Babe's (Dustin Hoffman), apartment.  Any man that go to such great lengths to prolong his pain, but not his life, must have had a good reason for doing so, right?  Well, that means that anyone interested in Szell's riches is now suddenly interested in Babe, and the stakes are high enough to justify just about anything.

Marathon Man was adapted from the book of the same name by the book's author, William Goldman.  If you are familiar with his work, then it should be no surprise that this is a layered narrative that pieces together seemingly unconnected stories surprisingly well.  If you are familiar with his screenplays, it shouldn't be surprising that a lot of what made the book fun to read has been edited out of the screenplay, to make it a more manageable story.  The core story remains mostly unchanged, except for the ending, so we still have the benefit of Goldman's awesome characters.  Sure, it's easy to like Babe, because he's a stubborn, intelligent, poor college student.  Doc was an interesting character, despite his brief screen time.  Even William Devane was given a character with levels.  The character that stands out the most, though, is definitely Szell.  Laurence Olivier's performance was chilling and, if you don't like the dentist, the stuff of nightmares.  The infamous scene where he tortures Babe with dentistry, while not explicit, is still unsettling.
A classic Shakespearean actor, about to mess you up.
This movie is not about the characters, as interesting as they may be.  It's about the story and the way it unfolds.  Director John Schlesinger handles this complex story well, and he respects the intelligence of the audience enough to not spell every last detail out.  The key story elements are explained, but there are no unnecessary flashbacks or ghosting images on the screen, and I appreciate that.  The soundtrack is effective, changing the mood from scene to scene, but gradually becoming more ominous as the film progresses.

What this movie does best, though, is exploit some very common fears.  The dentistry scene is the most famous in the film, and rightfully so.  Everyone is vulnerable in the dentist chair, and having your dentist calmly explain that he is going to drill into a healthy tooth and dig into a raw nerve, just to hurt you, is horrifying.  When I watched this scene again, I was struck by my own reaction; yes, I was a little uncomfortable at the moment, but the idea behind the scene disturbs me more than the scene itself.  And the idea of being interrogated, but not having lies or the truth believed --- that's pretty scary.  That is not the only scene that takes advantage of a commonly vulnerable time.  Babe's home is invaded by thugs while he is in the bath.  The panic on his face as he realizes just how hard it will be to protect himself is instantly and easily related to.

From a film perspective, there isn't much to critique negatively in Marathon Man.  When Doc died, the makeup used to give him a pale face was pretty awful, right up there with Cary Elwes in Saw.  I've never understood why this movie spends so much time on the death of Szell's brother, when it could have fleshed out Babe or Doc more with that time, but it was still an amusing scene.  And, as much as I enjoy Dustin Hoffman in the 70s, his angry/scared yelps can get annoying after enough repetition.  Still, this is an intelligent thriller with a good cast, good direction and good writing.

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