Marathon Man


Laurence Olivier has time to drill...

Now, of course, they have to call it Snickers Man. 

That, though, is one of the very few areas where John Schlesinger’s film shows its age. Its gripping chronicle of spies, Nazis and inconsiderate dentistry still displays all the menace, dread and urgency that unsettled audiences nearly 40 years ago. 

To find out why you don’t have to look far beyond Laurence Olivier’s Christian Szell, aka The White Angel: an escaped war criminal who, having mined a fortune from the gold fillings of his concentration camp victims, travels to Manhattan to retrieve his ill-gotten gains. 

Frail, cancer-stricken and well nigh uninsurable at the time of filming, Olivier summoned up all his energies to create one of cinema’s greatest villains – most chillingly in the “Is it safe?” scene where he uses a dentist’s drill to interrogate Dustin Hoffman’s hapless ‘Babe’ Levy. 

Not only that, but he also gifted us one of the all-time great put-downs: his possibly apocryphal response to his American co-star’s Method-based thespery. 

Hoffman (reteaming with his Midnight Cowboydirector Schlesinger), for his part, invests his running-mad New York grad student with a nervous, wiry intensity that clicks well against Larry’s urbane calm, especially in the final confronation – believed to have been added by Chinatown/Mission: Impossiblewriter Robert Towne, to the chagrin of scripter William Goldman.

The latter’s Adventures In The Screen Trade memoir paints Hoffman as a royal pain in the bum who bullied Olivier into improvising and refused to carry a torch in one scene lest audiences think him a wuss.

But taken in the context of the actor’s golden 60s/70s period (The GraduatePapillon, Little Big Man, Lenny, All The President’s Men, Kramer Vs Kramer among others), 

It’s clear that Marathon Man finds him pretty much at the peak of his powers, even in a role he was too old for and which was virtually a reprise of his character in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (meek milquetoast forced to grow a pair when cornered by hostile forces). 

Stories abound about the making of Marathon Man (though you won’t find any on this vanilla disc), the most famous involving Olivier’s response after learning Hoffman had gone Method and stayed up all night to capture his character’s fatigue: “Dear boy, why not try acting? It’s much easier.”

But here’s one story you may not have heard. The old dude who plays Szell’s brother is the humorously named Ben Dova (not to be confused with the adult movie star of the similar name), an old vaudeville comic who was born Joseph Späh in Strasbourg. At the start of the film he is seen perishing in a fireball – something he managed to avoid in real life when, in 1937, he walked away from the Hindenburg.

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