Marathon Man

As I continue revisiting my favorite movies of the past, the next one up is Marathon Man, from 1976. This isn’t one of the small number of films that I’ve seen countless times, but I have seen it several times. I’d guess this most recent time was the fourth or fifth time I’ve watched it all the way through, the first in I’m sure twenty years or more.

Marathon Man is a spy thriller, based on a novel. Babe (Dustin Hoffman) is a graduate student in history, seeking to rehabilitate the reputation of his father, himself an academic whose career was destroyed by McCarthyism, and who then fell deeper into alcoholism and killed himself. His older brother Doc purports to be an international oil executive of some kind, but that’s a cover for his work with the CIA.

Doc and a fellow agent with a prominent role in the film are among those secretly working with a notorious Nazi war criminal named Szell (Laurence Olivier) who is hiding in South America and living off what stolen loot he was able to take with him when he fled at the end of the war, including a large quantity of diamonds. The diamonds are in the safe keeping of his brother in New York in a safe deposit box at a bank. But early in the film, Szell’s brother dies in an accident, necessitating Szell’s taking a very risky trip to New York to retrieve the diamonds.

I find a decent amount of the spy stuff convoluted and not that easy to follow. That was especially true the first time or two through. With each viewing I’ve picked up more, but certainly I don’t understand all of it.

For instance, I don’t know if the agents cooperating with Szell are doing so as part of their work with the CIA (once the war ended and opposing the Soviet Union became the number one priority, many Nazi war criminals basically joined the U.S. side of the Cold War in exchange for protection) or if they are corruptly free lancing on their own. Nor do I know if Szell is exchanging some kind of Cold War-relevant information for their cooperation or if he’s simply bribing them with some of his diamond money.

In New York, Szell murders Doc, and, believing that prior to his death he passed on important information to Babe about possibly double crossing Szell and setting him up to be robbed when he got the diamonds from the bank, he and his henchmen kidnap Babe and proceed to torture him.

The torture sequence, which I won’t go into detail about, is by far the most famous part of the movie. Indeed, I wonder how many people who see Marathon Man even could tell you much else that goes on in it, like all the spy maneuvering, or for that matter the psychological stuff concerning how Babe and his career have been so powerfully influenced by his father’s death. The torture sequence just totally dominates everything else.

It really is one of the most powerful scenes, or series of scenes, in movie history, not least because of the interplay of two of the finest actors in history, from different nations and different generations. I suppose there’s no guarantee that when you put two such heavyweights together in a film it’s going to work, but it certainly does here.

When you get right down to it, you could make the case that a decent amount of this film outside of that sequence is pretty hokey. Doc fighting with people trying to kill him is dramatic and all that, but it’s also kind of James Bondish. When Szell succeeds in killing Doc, he inexplicably doesn’t finish the job and allows him to stagger and crawl mortally wounded the long distance to Babe’s apartment to die in his arms. That sets up the whole Babe versus Szell dynamic including the gruesome torture, but all that is only necessary because Szell went 95% of the way to killing Doc instead of the 100% he easily could have. Late in the film, Babe, who seems not at all the kind of person who would be comfortable with and adept with firearms, successfully defends himself with a handgun against multiple presumably skilled assassins, coolly dispatching them like a conventional macho movie hero.

It’s not completely ridiculous, but in these and other ways it veers a little too much toward cartoonish action movie style violence.

According to Wikipedia, by the way, the film originally had considerably more graphic violence, with the torture sequence itself being much longer and gorier. There were also various changes made from the book, including leaving out the fact that Doc and his spy partner are gay lovers, and changing the ending (just some of the details of how it plays out, not the main elements like who kills whom).

Marathon Man makes my list of my favorite hundred movies of all time, but given what I see as its flaws it probably doesn’t make my top fifty.

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