Marathon Man (1976)
Marathon Man (1976)

Genre: Thriller and Spy Running Time: 2 hrs. 5 min.

Release Date: October 8th, 1976 MPAA Rating: R

Director: John Schlesinger Actors: Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, William Devane, Marthe Keller, Fritz Weaver, Richard Bright, Marc Lawrence




usic by Michael Small features screeching instruments, dissonant sounds, and ominous notes, which generate a supremely fitting tone – before anything much happens. With this score alone (it’s one of the very best of the genre), it’s evident that “Marathon Man” will be an uncomfortably taut thriller. And, indeed, even before the story proper begins to unfold, two elderly characters engage in a destructive car chase through New York, culminating in a fiery collision with a combustible fuel tanker.

As fire trucks and ambulances rush to the scene, Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) coincidentally jogs across a bridge that overlooks the accident (the classic “wrong man” setup). He’s training for a marathon, and when he stops momentarily to glance at the flaming cars, his concentration – and his time – suffer. The next day, he rushes to Columbia University to continue his studies for a doctorate in history. Meanwhile, Doc (Roy Scheider), a spook who reports to Commander Peter Janeway (William Devane), engages in some covert activities, passing off sensitive materials on the street, visiting shady middlemen, narrowly avoiding a bombing, and discovering that his contacts are being murdered.

Doc’s cloak-and-dagger routines are instantly puzzling; at a French opera, a meeting with Nicole (Nicole Deslauriers) ends with the woman disappearing into shadows as a soccer ball rolls through a courtyard. What could all of this mean? Curiously, answers remain elusive for a considerable amount of time, with suspicious things continuing to amass. But with the assassination attempts and the unsettling ambiguity, generally laden with blood and violence, it’s easy enough to stay intrigued. Odder still are little details that don’t seem to further the plot, such as ongoing protests and a Central Park mugging, which lead to a voiceover narration as Babe writes a letter to Doc. Just about everything is, in fact, connected, but the pieces don’t begin to fit together until approximately halfway into the picture – and even then, few things are fully explained.

Other subplots emerge, including Babe’s pursuit of a woman (Marthe Keller), and the appearance of most-wanted Nazi, Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier, once again embodying an unforgettable movie persona), hiding out in Uruguay, who doesn’t even show up until nearly 40 minutes have transpired – and these introductions similarly tend to build more questions than answers. As it turns out, Doc and Babe are brothers, and one of the men killed in the vehicle fire in the opening moments was Szell’s sibling. As if placing the audience into the viewpoint of Babe, this central character is the only one without all of the pertinent information (actually, even less than viewers) – and he stays that way for an aggravatingly long time.

All of these seemingly unrelated developments converge into one of the most iconic of all movie scenarios: a nerve-wracking torture sequence that surely inspired countless other grisly moments in countless other productions. Even the storytelling surrounding this climactic setup harbors additional twists, which would likewise be borrowed elsewhere in cinema. “You should take better care of your teeth.”

Unfortunately, despite the pervasive suspense and the uniqueness of the bloodshed (and Babe’s startling lack of allies), the script’s insistence on withholding clues prevents a deeper involvement with the plot. At one point, Janeway has to explain everything in a rushed monologue of exposition. Still, the finale is exquisitely chaotic (though protracted in its attempts – unsuccessful as they may be – to resolve varying loose ends), boasting yet another idea that would be frequently reused in movies: excessive amounts of collateral damage accruing over the most trivial of things.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10