What Alfred Hitchcock did for showers in 'Psycho,' John Schlesinger does for dentists in 'Marathon Man.' Whatever you do, don't watch this film the night before your next cleaning, especially if you harbor any dental phobias. The movie's signature sequences send shivers up even the most desensitized spines as they target with pinpoint accuracy one of our most common and deep-seeded fears. Yet to its credit, this top-notch thriller that's also famous for the cryptic and very loaded three-word question "Is it safe?" is so much more than two frightening scenes of oral torture. A tense, intricate adaptation of William Goldman's bestselling novel, 'Marathon Man' rivets our attention from start to finish with an absorbing story, masterful pacing, and excellent performances from a first-rate cast that includes Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, and William Devane. The film also stands as one of a handful of 1970s classics ('Chinatown' and 'All the President's Men' among them) that feel as fresh and vibrant today as they surely did at the time of their original release.
Produced during the Cold War and on the heels of Watergate, 'Marathon Man' is all about fear, suspicion, and paranoia, and the strength required to overcome their crippling effects. It's no coincidence the film's title character, who compulsively trains for the ultimate test of human endurance, becomes the quintessential man on the run and must draw on every ounce of reserve in his compact frame to evade his pursuers. Much like a Hitchcock hero, Thomas "Babe" Levy (Hoffman) doesn't understand why he's being hunted and what information his captors hope to extract from him. He only knows he has to get away or he'll be killed.
Babe's father, an innocent victim of Senator Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch-hunt in the 1950s, committed suicide when Babe was a young boy, and his tragic death continues to haunt Babe, now a graduate student at Columbia University intent on clearing his dad's tarnished name. Babe runs, we presume, to escape his traumatic childhood memories and prove his personal worth, but when his brother Doc (Scheider), a "businessman" with shady global connections, comes to New York City for a visit, terror soon ensues, as Babe becomes ensnared in a tangled web of events concerning Dr. Christian Szell (Olivier), a Nazi war criminal who's forced to come out of hiding to retrieve a coveted stash of precious diamonds. Twists, of course, litter Goldman's tight screenplay, which expertly weaves thematic elements and character development into a suspenseful, action-packed story. (Hoffman, for reasons of heritage, objected to the film's original scripted ending, which mirrors that of the novel, so Robert Towne was brought in to construct a new denouement, which Goldman reportedly abhorred. The Towne ending possesses more of a grand Hollywood feel, but is also supremely effective and quite memorable.)
Espionage pictures are a dime a dozen, but the Nazi angle sets 'Marathon Man' apart from its sister films, adding an emotionally charged element to the complex plot. In 1976, World War II was only a generation removed, and its wounds were still fresh enough to provoke a visceral response, especially for those Jews directly impacted by the Holocaust. Goldman supposedly based Szell on the notorious real-life Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death," whose horrific human experiments at the Auschwitz concentration camp outraged the world, and who was still at large and living in Paraguay at the time of the film's premiere. (Two years later, a similar - and inferior - movie, 'The Boys from Brazil,' was released, in which Gregory Peck played Mengele and Olivier, in a reversal from his 'Marathon Man' role, portrayed a Nazi hunter.) The quiet, methodical sadism Olivier brings to Szell is supremely chilling, and his continual deadpan utterance of "Is it safe?" rings in the ears long after the movie ends. His finely etched performance justly earned the renowned thespian a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (the only Academy recognition the film received) and a Golden Globe award.
At the time, Schlesinger seemed like an odd choice to helm such a large-scale, pulsating thriller. 'Marathon Man' marked a severe departure for the director, who made his mark crafting cerebral pictures like 'Midnight Cowboy' and 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' that emphasize the finer points of the human condition. Yet his inexperience with the genre never shows, and he brings to the table essential sensitivities and an elegant visual sense that distinguish the film from others in its class. One might think Schlesinger would approach the material in a detached, even-tempered manner, but he throws caution to the wind, rarely taking his foot off the gas and relishing the story's explosive nature. A few well-timed breathers notwithstanding, 'Marathon Man' zips along at a brisk clip, ironically resembling a sprinter.
The picture also holds up incredibly well in this day and age. I hadn't seen 'Marathon Man' for at least 25 years before this recent viewing, and I was struck by the story's continued relevance, and how the attitudes, jargon, even the New York locations didn't feel dated in the slightest. Only a few wardrobe choices betray the movie's 1970s roots, and it's easy to look past those regrettable reminders.
Though a bit long in the tooth (pun intended) at age 38 to portray a university student, Hoffman pulls it off, thanks to his boyish looks and diminutive stature, and handles the role's intense physical demands well. Those familiar with the actor's body of work will quickly recognize his tics and idiosyncrasies, but they don't get in the way of his performance, which brims with an impressive raw power. Olivier's measured menace beautifully counteracts him, and the underrated, always natural Scheider makes a striking impression as the suave, confident Doc. Swiss actress Marthe Keller, making her American debut, shines as Babe's mysterious girlfriend, and the square-jawed, grimacing Devane asserts himself well in a tough, uncompromising role.
So many thrillers are so utterly preposterous they possess little intrinsic value. 'Marathon Man,' however, is that rare piece of popcorn entertainment that also cuts to the bone. Sure, it's violent and disturbing, but it's also one of Hollywood's finest suspense films - brilliantly plotted, stylishly photographed, well acted, and populated with dimensional characters. Without question, Schlesinger's film goes the distance and continues to run strong almost four decades later. Even if it keeps you from darkening a dentist's door ever again, it's well worth seeing.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Marathon Man' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Warner has done a fantastic job with the 'Marathon Man' transfer, making this 37-year-old film look practically like a new release. No specks, marks, or errant scratches dot the pristine source material, which flaunts a mild but distinct grain structure that provides marvelous texture. Clarity and contrast are excellent (reflections in windows and on water are wonderfully sharp), and though some scenes exhibit a softer look than others, the gradation is slight and seems to accurately reflect the film's original appearance. The color palette is intentionally muted, but the blood possesses a nice bold tint, and the foliage in the countryside and Central Park sequences looks appropriately lush.
Black levels are rich and deep; nocturnal scenes benefit from strong shadow delineation, with only a hint of crush creeping into the frame's darkest recesses. Background elements are always easy to discern, and the various storefronts and building facades of the New York cityscape show up well and lend the story essential atmosphere. Fleshtones remain natural and true throughout the film's course, and close-ups are often breathtaking, spotlighting every hair follicle and facial crease.
Best of all, no banding, noise, or pixilation muck up this transfer, and no DNR or edge enhancement disrupt the movie's natural presentation. I can't imagine 'Marathon Man' looking much better than it does here, and this first-rate 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering should delight the film's legion of fans.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track equals, if not surpasses, the movie's video quality. Vibrant, yet nuanced, this superior mix makes up in detail what it lacks in noticeable surround effects. (There's also a restored mono track on the disc that better replicates the original theatrical viewing experience.) From the opening sounds of Hoffman's steady, labored breathing on his daily run to the potent explosions that crop up throughout the film, this track runs the gamut of intensity and passes every test with flying colors. Ambient effects, such as rain, drift slightly into the rears, while subtleties, such as creaky floorboards, add essential atmosphere to many scenes. Accents like the clinking and clanking of a pinball machine and zipper on a body bag are crisp and distinct, as is the gunfire and buzzing of Szell's deadly drill.
Terrific dynamic range showcases the bright highs and weighty low-end tones that continually vie for prominence, and not a hint of distortion ever creeps into the track. Strong bass frequencies pump up any sequence featuring firearms, and dialogue is generally clear and comprehendible, though a few mumbled lines require a quick rewind to fully decipher all the words. Music is also extremely well presented, whether it's a selection of German lieder by Franz Schubert or Michael Small's intricate soundtrack, which is punctuated by jarring bursts of dissonant chords that enhance suspense while challenging the track's parameters.
Any age-related defects, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, have been erased, leaving a clean, complex, but well-appointed track that perfectly complements every aspect of this fine film. Audio plays a big role in the full enjoyment of 'Marathon Man,' and this superb mix maximizes every sonic opportunity.
All the supplements from the previous DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release, and it's a worthwhile collection of material. An audio commentary would be a nice addition, but that will have to wait for a future edition.
With a stellar cast, crackerjack story, and taut direction - not to mention one of the most agonizing and squirm-inducing scenes in film history - 'Marathon Man' dazzled audiences in the 1970s and continues to do so today. John Schlesinger's spellbinding adaptation of William Goldman's bestselling novel grabs you from the opening frames and doesn't loosen its grip until the closing credits roll. A tale of espionage, divided loyalties, family scars, and long-delayed retribution, 'Marathon Man' is far more than an innocent-man-on-the-run thriller, and the performances of Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, and Marthe Keller elevate its reputation and help it trump most other movies in its class. Warner's Blu-ray presentation scores big points, with first-class video and audio transfers, as well as a solid selection of bonus material. Though 37 years old, 'Marathon Man' hasn't lost its legs; it may not be safe, but it remains one of Hollywood's best thrillers, and this high-def release does it proud. Highly recommended.