a critiQal film review Marathon Man (1976)

Plot: Thomas "Babe" Levy (Hoffman) is a Columbia graduate student and long-distance runner who is oblivious to the fact that his older brother, Doc (Scheider), is a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal (Olivier) - that is, until Doc is murdered and Babe finds himself knee-deep in a tangle of stolen gems and sadistic madmen. Even his girlfriend, Elsa (Keller), becomes a suspect as everything Babe believed to be true is suddenly turned upside down.

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When looking back at movies to review for #TBT, there are so many, it’s almost hard to choose. Should I go with something newer, like Raging Bull or Goodfellas? Or something more classic like Vertigo or Gone with the Wind? While I will eventually review all of the above, there’s something about films from the 70’s that keep drawing me back. With so many classic films, it’s no wonder. And that’s why I went with Marathon Man today.

But, is Marathon Man really one of the classic films of the 70’s? Or is it just another overrated flick with star power?

Dustin Hoffman leads the way as the title character in Marathon Man. Running from his father’s suicide many years earlier, his character “Babe” is intriguing from the start. But, while the viewer is interested in how his father’s suicide may tie into the plot of the film – and how his new girlfriend (played by Marthe Keller) is involved – gets the viewer invested in the film. Unfortunately, despite quite a long time to do so, however, the viewer never gets really interested in his character as a person. While Dustin does a good job of portraying the guy, honestly, Babe isn’t really all that interesting. He’s just the Joe Schmoe that gets wrapped up in things far above his head.

As Babe’s brother, “Doc”, however, Roy Scheider is interesting in Marathon Man. The cool, suave secret agent that has several Bond tendencies, Scheider’s Doc is the real entertainment of this film. Like a cautious Bond, he’s smart and careful, yet manages to battle it out with his foes – and win – if he needs to. For the first hour of the pic, while Dustin and Marthe are lost in a silly love story, Scheider’s Doc keeps the viewer interested and intrigued. What’s Doc involved with? And why?

Laurence Olivier, a notable talent in his own right, plays the bad Nazi in Marathon Man. Cool and unable to be rattled for most of the film, his Nazi war criminal is a cool, calculating evil. It’s a villain viewers will love to hate, and, thanks to some brutal acts including a torture scene that still has folks shying away from the dentist, viewers will find a lot to love to hate about his character. While he does fall apart a bit in the finale, thanks to a muddied script, it’s easy to see why he got nominated for an Academy Award for this role.

With such solid performances from both Olivier and Scheider, it’s no wonder there are still fans of Marathon Man to this day. Unfortunately, the muddied script leaves a lot to be desired. But, it does leave the viewer wondering. Did they miss the pieces in this complicated plot? Or did the movie really just gloss over major details? Like, for example, whose side Doc is on, or why the odd plot contrivance to involve Babe?

With such star power – and some rave reviews – viewers will be expecting big things from Marathon Man. Unfortunately, while Scheider and Olivier shine, the odd plot contrivances and gaping holes leave the viewer with more questions at the end of the film than when they started. That may have been a good thing if a sequel had been planned, but as of now – and the addition of this being not one of Hoffman’s best characters – this film leaves a lot more to be desired than expected.

Sure, Marathon Man is a tense thriller. But, behind its thin plot, there are too many gaping holes and plot contrivances than one would ever expect. Especially of a film called “classic” by most.

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