William Goldman's riveting screen adaptation of his own novel introduces us to Thomas "Babe" Levy (Hoffman), a driven Columbia grad student whose every waking moment seems spent finding some way to exorcise the demons of his past. When not steeped in pursuit of the dissertation that he believes will vindicate the memory of his father, a professor pushed to suicide after being targeted in the McCarthy witch hunts, he's donning his track gear and pushing himself to exhaustion in preparation for the Olympic marathon.
Babe's existence is irrevocably changed when he's visited by his older brother Doc (Roy Scheider) who happens to be in town on business. As it happens, Doc is a U.S. intelligence agent, and one of his duties has been to serve as a go-between for the fugitive Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Olivier), who has traded certain secrets for an undisturbed life of seclusion in South America. Szell had been prodded to leave his safe house by the death of his NYC-based brother, intending to find his sibling's fabulous cache of diamonds taken from Holocaust victims. Doc locates and confronts Szell upon his arrival; believing the agent is after the gems, the aged Nazi mortally stabs him. Doc staggers back to Babe's apartment and dies in his arms.
This, unfortunately, only serves to lead Szell's thugs to Babe, who kidnap him and take him to an abandoned warehouse. In the film's chilling signature sequence, Szell subjects the immobilized Babe to his particular gift for torture--dental surgery with ancient tools and no anesthetic--with the intent of extracting information that the terrorized student does not possess. After Szell's sadistic cruelty ("Is it safe?") produces unconsciousness and nothing more, the demented dentist turns to other means of locating the hidden treasure. At the earliest opportunity, Babe breaks from his captors, his training allowing him to outdistance their pursuit. Returning home, the onetime pacifist breaks out the very gun his father used to end his life, and sets out for a final confrontation with Szell.
Much has been made of the on-set tensions between the two primary players. Olivier was 69 when he signed on to the project, and the great lion of the stage's health was already in serious decline; everyone, including Olivier, was surprised when he cleared the studio's insurance exam. Approach to craftwork became a battlefront of sorts for the classically-trained Olivier and the Method actor Hoffman. After Hoffman announced that he had been awake for two straight days to get into the part, Olivier's response was "My dear boy, you look awful. Why don't you try acting?"
Later in the course of rehearsal, Hoffman and Olivier were working on their climactic confrontation, and the younger actor insisted upon trying improvisation. "After a glance at Schlesinger as referee," Donald Spoto wrote in Laurence Olivier: A Biography, "Olivier had to muster all his professionalism to agree to something he neither believed in nor felt up to." The performers began walking around the rehearsal hall, with the only marked results for Olivier being a painful swelling in his ankles. "'Part of it,' says Goldman, who watched helpless, 'was Hoffman's need to put himself on at least an equal footing with this sick old man.'...The spectacle pained everyone in the room and quickly became a talking-point in the industry," Spoto recounted.
While Marathon Man opened to strong reviews and brisk receipts, it was by and large ignored by the Academy at Oscar® time, with only a Supporting Actor Nomination for Olivier's remarkable effort. As recounted in Gene D. Philips' John Schlesinger, the filmmaker observed at the time, "Judging from the Oscar® nominations we are obviously not popular...I wonder if Hollywood will ever forgive me for (adapting Nathanael West's biting industry indictment) The Day of the Locust (1975)."
Producers: Sidney Beckerman and Robert Evans
Director: John Schlesinger
Screenplay: William Goldman (also the play)
Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall
Art Direction: Jack De Shields
Music: Michael Small
Film Editing: Jim Clark
Cast: Thomas Levy (Dustin Hoffman), Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), Henry Levy (Roy Scheider), Peter Janeway (William Devane), Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller), Professor Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver).
C-126m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg