Directed by JOHN SCHLESINGER Screenplay by WILLIAM GOLDMAN
No doubt: Marathon Man is the year's most cunning entertainment, a thriller full of spills and shootings, double-dealings and triple betrayals. It is lavishly mounted and loaded with flash. The movie also offers Dustin Hoffman, giving one of his best performances, up against Laurence Olivier, who is in fine form playing an archvillain. Watching Marathon Man is a little like getting crowned by a chain-mail fist.
But the movie is plagued by self-inflatable notions of its own importance. Director John Schlesinger (Sunday, Bloody Sunday; Day of the Locust) and Screenwriter William Goldman (All the President's Men) are not content with making an espionage yarn. They have tarted up their story with phony resonances intended to link it to such things as war guilt, the Nazis and the Jews, McCarthy witch-hunting, and the blight of urban decay as emblematic of modern anomie. Thrillers can deal fleetly with ideas, even difficult ones;
Graham Greene and John le Carre have brought off some of the best contemporary writing about politics and morality while telling their ruthlessly ingenious stories. In their work, though, themes rise naturally out of the plot. Not so in Marathon Man, where they are strictly excess baggage.
Stubborn persistence in trying to follow the film's plot may raise as many questions as it answers. The following, however, is clear: a sadistic old Nazi named Christian Szell (Olivier) is hiding out in luxury among the flora and fauna of Uruguay. Szell has kept snug on fees he collected from Jews in concentration camps. To help them escape the gas ovens, he first accepted goldoften fillings from teeth, which he obligingly pulled himselfthen diamonds. The diamonds are stashed in a Manhattan safe-deposit box, watched over by Szell's brother, who, as the movie begins, is incinerated in an auto accident. Since Szell understandably does not trust any of his couriers, he must now come to the U.S. and get the diamonds himself. The couriers are tough, well-tailored guys like Scylla (Roy Scheider) and Janeway (William Devane), who may at any time be working for Szell, the U.S. Government, themselves, or any combination thereof.
On the scene in New York is Babe Levy (Hoffman). The son of a famous historian who committed suicide during the McCarthy era, Babe is a brilliant Columbia graduate student with a nifty, mysterious girl friend (Marine Keller).
His brother Doc is involved with Szell, a fact that Babe learns only when Doc comes staggering into his student digs, dying from a crevice that has been carved across his abdominal region. It is not long before Babe finds himself en during the dental ministrations of Szell, suffering horribly while the Nazi per forms some impromptu root-canal work in an attempt to extract information that Babe does not possess.