Marathon Man: Method-maestro Dustin Hoffman battles the great thespian Laurence Olivier in this pulse-pounding thriller that’s basically a ‘coming of age’ story and tackles deeper themes like anti-Semitism

Marathon Man(1976), Directed by John Schlesinger from a novel by William Goldman, and starring Dustin Hoffman, Roy Scheider and Laurence Olivier, is a superbly crafted thriller that tackles deeper themes of Nazism, anti-Semitism and the rites of passage to adulthood.

One of the most famous, real-life Hollywood stories of generational clash between actors, which was later found to be more apocryphal, is the one involving the great British thespian, Sir Laurence Olivier, and new age method-wiz kid, Dustin Hoffman, on the sets of Director John Schlesinger’s 1976 thriller, Marathon Man. The story goes something like this: Dustin Hoffman (being a “method actor”) stayed up all night to play a character who has stayed up all night. He is also supposed to have put himself on ice to generate the appearance of a man who was almost drowned and tortured. Arriving on the set, Sir Laurence Olivier asked Hoffman (in another version he asked Schlesinger) why he looked the way he did. Hoffman told him, to which Olivier replied in jest “Why not try acting? It’s much easier.”; in another version Olivier tells this to Schlesinger: “Hasn’t the boy heard of acting?”. Hoffman has repeatedly denied the story, and blamed this on a journalist who interviewed him on the set of the film for misquoting him; according to him: The torture scene was filmed early in the morning, Hoffman was going through a divorce from his first wife and was depressed, and had spent the previous two nights partying hard. Hoffman told Olivier this and his comment related to his lifestyle and not his “method” style of acting, which means that Olivier was telling Hoffman to drown his sorrows in his work, in his acting rather than partying. Whatever the truth of the matter, the story is a good reflection on the acting styles of the two actors; Sir Olivier is a British stage actor, who looked at acting as an act of creating an illusion of the character he’s playing; the chief tools for which are accents, makeup, costumes etc. he creates a character from outside in, and his performance in “Marathon Man” testifies to that. As Dr. Christian Szell, the terrifying Nazi war-criminal hiding in South America, but now forced to come out in the open, Olivier has his white-hair shaved bald, wears specs, he affects a deep German accent, a soft voice and a cold, sophisticated attitude that turns ominous with slight adjustments. And thus, with minimum effort, he successfully brings out the character, and his performance is absolutely chilling, brilliant enough to win an Oscar nomination for support actor. Olivier was very sick at the time of making this film, and it was doubtful that he would make it through alive, but thankfully he did, and one of the main reasons he could play such a tough character so effectively even under such tough conditions is because of his technique as an actor. He would have never made it through if he was a “Hoffman” kind of method actor; because Hoffman believes in ‘living’ a character ‘inside out’ rather than creating an illusion. He plays a PhD. student in Columbia university, who is also training to be a Marathon runner. Unknowingly, he gets caught up in an international conspiracy involving Olivier’s Dr. Szell, corrupt government agents and stolen diamond. To play this role, he lost fifteen pounds, he ran up to four miles a day to get into shape; Even in scenes where there’s no running, but has to show the after effects of long running, there’s no faking of heavy breathing. Hoffman would run for a half-mile, so when he came into a scene where he would be shown exhausted from running, he would actually be out of breath. So whether apocryphal or not, you can understand why the the above story is very easy to believe. Even if Olivier never said those words, chances are that he was dying to say this to Hoffman.

This conflict in acting styles between Hoffman and Olivier adds a nice ‘meta’ layer to Marathon Man, because the characters they play in the film are opposites in every way. Olivier is an old Nazi, a war-criminal, war-profiteer and now in hiding in Uruguay, while Hoffman is a Jew. a college student and a long distance runner who live his life in the open in New York city. Szell, played by Olivier, was the ‘the White Angel’ (named so because of his prominent mane of white hair) of Auschwitz; the doctor who used to do experiments on Jews detained in concentration camps. Being a dentist, he used to takeout the golden tooth of the Jews before he burned them, and thereby collected a nice fortune. By the war’s end, before he went into hiding, he was smart enough to convert his fortune into diamonds and deposit them in a Manhattan bank. The diamonds enabled him to lead a luxurious life in exile. The locker to the bank vault holding the diamonds have 2 keys, one is with Szell and the other is with his brother, who’s his only conduit with the outside world. Every time he’s need money, Szell have his brother take one diamond out and bring it to him, which he would sell it through his couriers. At the beginning of the film, we see his brother getting killed in a fit of road rage. This means that Szell will have to come out of hiding to get his diamonds, but he’s suspicious of the network of couriers he had employed in the past; that they would track him down and steal the diamonds. So before he comes to New York city, he has his men kill everyone who has knowledge of his diamonds. One of his couriers is Henry ‘Doc’ Levy (Roy Scheider), who’s a government agent disguised as an oil businessman. Doc was couriering diamonds for Szell in return for the latter’s assistance in tracking down other Nazi war criminals. A couple of attempts are made on Doc’s life by Szell’s henchman, Chen, in Paris, but he manages to escape both. Doc reports these incidents to his superior Peter Janeway(William Devane), who’s rather nonchalant in his response. But when news reaches Doc that his younger brother, Thomas Babington ‘Babe’ Levy(Dustin Hoffman) and his girlfriend, Elsa Opel (Marta Keller), is mugged in the central park by a couple of suited men, he realizes that it’s Szell who’s behind all this, and most probably he’s planning to come to New York to retrieve his diamonds. Doc is also suspicious about Babe’s new Swiss girlfriend and believes that she’s spying for Szell. So, Doc returns to New York to be with his brother and confront Szell face to face. Babe, who thinks his brother is a businessman, is happy to see him back, but is later disturbed when Doc exposes Elsa to be a phony, who’s in love with Babe only to marry him and gain American citizenship (Doc does not tell Babe anything about Szell or his diamonds).

Doc sets up a meeting with Szell- who has arrived in the city with his head shaven- at a public plaza. At the meeting, Doc violently chastises Szell for involving Babe in these matters, and warns him that he himself is not to be trusted- meaning that Doc may be planning to steal Szell’s diamonds. Szell then takes Doc by surprise and stabs him with a blade concealed in his sleeve. Bleeding to death, Doc somehow makes it back to Babe’s apartment and falls dead in front of a shocked Babe. This last minute move on Doc’s part- to die in the company of his brother, the only one who loves him- proves fatal for Babe. Now Szell thinks Babe was in on Doc’s plan to rob his diamonds; so he has Babe kidnapped and tortured (using his Auschwitz style dentistry) to make him reveal what he knows about this diamond business. Meanwhile, Babe is shocked to know that his brother was a government agent, and worse, Janeway, his brother’s friend who was promising to help him, is a rogue agent now working for Szell. Babe somehow manages to escape from Szell’s prison, thanks mainly to his skills as a marathon runner, and goes about solving the mystery around his brother’s death. First, Elsa is revealed to be Szell’s spy as Doc suspected. Then, Babe has a confrontation with Janeway and Szell’s henchman at Szell’s brother’s house, where Janeway offers to let Babe kill Szell in revenge for Doc’s death, if Janeway can have the diamonds; he also gives Babe the location of Szell’s bank. But then, Janeway does a volte-face and tries to shoot Babe. In the ensuing gunfight, Janeway, Elsa and the two henchman are killed, while Babe escapes. Meanwhile, Szell has retrieved his diamonds successfully from the bank, but in an attempt to to determine their value, he’s forced to visit the Diamond district in midtown Manhattan, where a number of holocaust survivors recognize him. Forced to flee, Szell is confronted by Babe, who leads him at gunpoint into a water-treatment facility in South Gate House, Central Park. Now, it’s Babe’s turn to torture Szell, both physically and mentally. Babe threatens to drop the suitcase containing diamonds in the water if Szell wouldn’t swallow the diamonds. Szell complies for a while, but then, becomes enraged and tries to stab Babe exactly the same way he stabbed Doc. Babe throws the suitcase into the water, and Szell, in his attempt to catch it, slips and falls down the steps and ends up stabbing and killing himself with his knife.

At it’s very basic level, Marathon Man(1976), is a purely generic exercise in a slick Hollywood escapist thriller, but here’s where the men who make the movies and the time it is made plays a part in elevating a genre exercise into something more powerful and artistic. Schlesinger is a true pioneer of the New-Hollywood; with his darkly cynical and narrative-bending, avant-garde films like “Midnight Cowboy” and “The Day of the Locust” being the quintessential films from the era. William Goldman, having written the ultimate New-Hollywood Western, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, is actually more of a classical screenwriter. He believes in building up his narrative and characterization linearly, and infuses his novels\screenplays with richly detailed characters and clever wordplay. The combination of these two talents create interesting results. Take the opening of the film for instance: we have two events taking place in parallel. The scenes of Babe running is intercut with Szell’s brother retrieving the diamonds from the bank. We see the diminutive, Jewish Babe being challenged by a tall, blonde ‘Aryan’ looking guy to outrun him. At the same time, Szell’s brother gets into an argument with a Jewish guy in the street, and their argument becomes more and more heated as they start throwing racially charged expletives at each other. So as Babe tries to outrun the tall guy and fails, we have Szell’s brother and the Jewish guy having a race of their own in the street with their cars, which finally culminates in both of them banging their cars into an oil tanker, setting off an explosions that kills both of them. In these scenes, both the text and subtext of the film is revealed in a single sweep. On one hand, Szell’s brother’s death is what kick off the plot, but intercutting these scenes with babe running shows that this is an incident that’s going to change Babe’s life forever, even as it reveals that anti-Semitism is going to be the underlying theme of the film. The two big instances of Jewish prosecution in the twentieth century is brought together in the film. First is the Nazi holocaust that happened in Europe; second is the McCarthyism that happened in America post WWII. Though Senator McCarthy and his HUAC was supposed to out communists in every walk of American life, it was mainly targeted against Jews, and it can be understood from the fact that all those who were blacklisted as part of it, particularly in Hollywood, were mainly Jews. In the film, Babe and Doc’s father- who was a professor at Columbia University- was blacklisted for being a communist and he committed suicide by shooting himself. Babe has been tormented about this all his life, and his running and his obsession with attaining a PhD. in history from Columbia University is part of that. One of the key chapters in his thesis was to be about McCarthyism. And just as he lost his father to McCarthyism, he would loose his brother to Nazism. So, you could clearly see the links that Goldman makes between these two tyrannical philosophies. Also, in the form of corrupt government agent, Janeway, who joins hands with Nazi, Szell, we get a modern representation of McCarthyism. Doc and Janeway are friends and colleagues (in the novel they’re homosexual lovers), and Janeway’s betrayal of Doc is akin to Doc and Babe’s father being betrayed by his friends during the HUAC witch-hunts. As a souvenir, Babe had kept the gun with which his father had shot himself, and it’s this gun that he uses against Janeway and Szell at the end of the film. So Babe’s act of killing Janeway and Szell takes on the dimension of avenging all the atrocities committed on the Jewish race in the modern age.

The film can also be looked upon as a ‘Coming of age’ tale, where ‘Babe’, the baby becomes the ‘man’, and hence the title Marathon Man has additional relevance. The film closely follows Babe’s ‘rites of passage’ in blood and violence that takes him into adulthood. At first, Babe is seen leading a totally protected life as a student, away from all the turmoil and conspiracies of the real world. But slowly, one event after another starts happening in his life that begins to test his mettle. He’s beaten up in the park, his girlfriend turns out to be phony, his brother dies, he’s kidnapped and tortured, then he escapes and starts his quest for vengeance. And his progression to manhood goes hand in hand with his coming to terms with his Jewishness. i must say that a lot of these themes are not fully developed, and I’m actually making the film more interesting than it actually is. One of the reasons for this is that as a new-Hollywood director, Schlesinger is more concerned with character rather than plot, but in a mystery\thriller the plot is of paramount importance, and the source novel has a hell of a lot of plot. Though the film’s first half is concerned with setting up the mystery, it feels rather disjointed, and Schlesinger’s staccato style of editing that worked well for Midnight Cowboy is not suited for a traditional thriller, where the audience should be kept in the loop all the time as to how the mystery is developing. Schlesinger’s attempts to tackle the story through Babe’s character is not always successful, because for the most part, he’s a supporting player in this story, and his brother, Doc, is the driving force of the central narrative. It’s only after Doc’s death that Babe becomes the Centre point. Also, a lot of the explanation for the stuff that happens in the first act actually comes only in the second and third acts (for some mysteries, there’re no explanation at all). It’s very hard to follow the plot in these portions.

But the moment from Doc’s death till Babe’s escape from Szell’s prison is superbly crafted, and is the best part of the film. These portions play more like a horror film; right from the eerie setting of the plaza where Szell kills Doc, and then a totally bloodied Doc barging into Babe’s room like a ghost. The scene where Babe is kidnapped by Szell’s thugs is brilliantly set up by Schlesinger and the great cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall. There’s no background score to go with this scene, it’s all natural sound effects as in Friedkin’s The Exorcist. We see Babe lying in the bathtub of his ramshackle apartment, when he hear voices outside in the dark; he jumps out and shuts the door. then the camera stays with him inside, as we hear and see the doors of his bathroom being broken down by the thugs. he desperately cries for help, but to no avail, by then the intruders have caught him and they try to drown him in the bathtub as he passes out. The next time we see him, he’s in the presence of the Szell, who’s got his dentist’s tools all laid out and is preparing to work on him. This is almost like a time-travel moment. Both Szell and Babe are now in Auschwitz; Babe is going to have the same nightmares that every European Jew a generation before him has had, while for Szell it’s moment of wish fulfillment; he’s now back at doing what he does best. As Szell keep repeating the question: “Is it safe?”, the question becoming ever more sinister every time he repeats it, we know Babe’s fate is sealed. And when he approaches Babe’s teeth with his probes to work on a cavity he has found, we scream along with Babe. This happens again when Szell later works on a fresh teeth of Babe’s. The scene of horror is shot very straight by Schlesinger, and not stylized at all. Add to that Laurence Olivier’s performance, which is great all round, but is particularly effective in this sequence: his cold, detached demeanor, his artist like care and temperament while using his tools, and his utter contempt for human life – he holds his probes in one one hand and clove oil in another to prove to Babe how easily interchangeable pain and relief, life and death is. These moments are the real transformative moments in Babe’s life, and later when he escape, it’s thanks to his endless hours of training and skills as an endurance runner. we see him losing that race with the tall, blonde guy in the beginning, but now when he’s running for his life, he manages to outpace his adversaries, which includes Janeway. Also, at the end of the film, after Szell is dead, we see Babe return to the spot where he runs every morning and throw the gun (his father’s gun) in the river. This means closure for him; he has exorcised the demons of his father, avenged his brother, and now is his own man.

But a closure to the character doesn’t mean all the loose ends in the plot are tied up. There are quite a lot of stuff kept hanging. One of the biggest issues was with the climax, which was radically changed from Goldman’s novel. Hoffman refused to pay it as it was written by Goldman, in which Babe takes Szell to the central park and shoots and kills him. So Robert Towne was hired to write the ending set in the water-treatment facility. The ending does look a bit off; Goldman called it downright stupid. Some other continuity and plot issues were caused by censorship issues. Some major scenes involving the character of Doc was cut from the film because they were too violent. The film benefits immensely from being shot on real locations in New York city, it has the same decaying feel of the city that can be seen in many New York set films of the 1970s, like Taxi Driver(1976), though this film has the look and feel of the gritty, street thrillers of Sidney Lumet like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. The film was one of the half a dozen films to use the newly invented Steadicam technology, and it gives a fluid feel to the running scenes. One of the biggest grouses i have is regards to Dustin Hoffman’s performance, which comes across as too labored and over the top. Hoffman is an actor i always have trouble warming up to; he’s my least favorite actor from the New-Hollywood phase; and apart from movies like The Graduate and Rainman, i always find him unconvincing and heavy-going in serious dramatic roles. I would have loved to see my favorite, Al Pacino, who was Schlesinger’s first choice, tackle this role. But the film also has my other favorite from that time, Roy Scheider, who’s so effortless, and effortlessly cool and macho, like the Bogart of 70s. It’s a pity that he dies by the middle of the film. But these issues aside, the film still works for me; purely on a visceral level, it’s thrilling and engrossing, and on an intellectual level, it may not be fully convincing, but i find it ambitious and thought provoking.

7 thoughts on “Marathon Man: Method-maestro Dustin Hoffman battles the great thespian Laurence Olivier in this pulse-pounding thriller that’s basically a ‘coming of age’ story and tackles deeper themes like anti-Semitism

  1. Nice deep dive on one of my favorite films. The set pieces, sharp editing, great cinematography (which includes the first use of the Steadicam by Garrett Brown) and strong direction by Schlesinger along with the themes of Nazism, paranoia, inability to let go of the past and growing up into adulthood make this film very memorable. I can watch it numerous times and never get bored. Olivier is so magnetic as Szell that the audience is repulsed yet strangely attracted by him. I loved that he died by his own hand instead of Babe shooting him down, unrepentant and consumed by his greed of the diamonds. Truly a worthy comeback.

    I’m going to have to strongly disagree with you on Hoffman. You call him a method dick, but he is one of my favorite actors ever and he is completely convincing in his roles. His method acting is so effortless that I hardly notice it. Whenever he’s on screen, he completely captures my attention. He brings realism, depth and empathy to his roles which makes me feel like I’m one of them.

    Here, he is magnificent as Babe and makes us part of his journey as we are experiencing what he’s going through. His over the top ness works perfectly as it matches the extreme paranoia Babe went through. Especially during the scenes when they return to the hideout and Janeway is revealed to be an accomplice to Szell and the escape from Szell’s hideout where he could have been totally naked (as a runner myself, I know the feeling of running for your life). He plays off Olivier with such dexterity that the combination of the two is so powerful and radiant.

    And sorry to disappoint you and Schlesinger, but Pacino would have been a misfit for the role. He is too larger than life to play a terrified grad student and he doesn’t really convince as a Jew; there would be a little too much Italian if he played it. Plus as a chain smoker at the time, he wouldn’t have been able to handle the running scenes.

    Wish there were more scenes with Scheider who is excellent as Doc, but he pales in comparison to Olivier and Hoffman. Devane too is sinister and despite playing presidents, he has that untrustworthy look and demeanor that makes one instantly suspect him to be a traitor. Keller is a mixed bag; on one hand she brings a kind of ambiguity to Elsa which works to an extent while on the other hand, I feel she doesn’t have much to do. She did better opposite Pacino in Bobby Deerfield.

    I’d like to give a special shoutout to Michael Small for his score.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And let me state that I’m not offended about what you’ve written about Hoffman; it’s your opinion and you stick to it. I don’t condone him for his nasty behavior on sets and his sexual harassment against women; he was wrong for doing it back then and he’s rightfully called out for it now. Having said that, I love his acting and movies.

      I have a few questions for you: I read somewhere along with his acting influences like Brando, Sivaji, Chaplin and Sellers, Kamal has said he feels like the Dustin Hoffman of Indian Cinema. Do you agree with it? And has that led to kind of a narcissistic streak in him where he has been interfering during the making of his movies/ghost directing like how Hoffman was notorious known for doing it in his heyday?

      You, Madan, Jeeva (though I feel he preaches a bit too much on BR’s blog) and I are probably the only few who write exhaustive and exhausting writeups because we passionately love the topics we write about. Though you give away the entire plot in your deep dives (one of your characteristics which will never go away) it’s still compelling to read. After your Virumandi writeup (which I still have yet to watch), I’ve been careful to only read your reviews of classic/sometimes contemporary films that I’ve watched before like AAA, AS, A Bridge Too Far, Scarface, Sharaabi and this movie to name a few and comment if necessary. You’ve made improvements to your writing and it reads more clearly.

      Please keep your passionate love for movies going strong!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Since I write about old films I always take it for granted that people who are reading it has seen the film. Also, you cannot make some serious points about the film without mentioning the full plot sometimes. I’ll try to do better in the future. Regarding Kamal and Hoffman, what he meant I think is that they’re not naturally as talented as Brando. They have to work hard to make performances happen, which is true for De Niro as well. But I feel Kamal is more gifted than Hoffman

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  2. I’m fine with that, MANK! Let’s agree to disagree on Hoffman!

    I hope all is well with you. It’s always a pleasure to read your blog and comments and I’m learning a lot.

    I recently watched the Insider and I enjoyed it. It’s an engaging and thrilling piece with Mann at his best and Pacino/Crowe/Plummer doing superb work. When I get time, I’ll read your Heat piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks again Jayram. Insider is a film I have mixed feelings, but there’s no question about the performances or Michael Mann’s artistry

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  3. Despite some of the weak points I consider it to be one of the quintessential films of the Seventies and one of the great paranoid films as well. Trivia for you. The actor who played Szell’s brother was on the Hindenburg and had to jump from the burning dirigible. He can be seen in the newsreel footage of the disaster jumping for his life. He was burned which makes his fictional death even more chilling.

    Liked by 1 person

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