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Review: Marathon Man (1976)

Marathon Man (1976)

Directed by: John Schlesinger

Premise: A graduate student (Dustin Hoffman) unwittingly becomes the target of a diamond smuggling scheme when his brother (Roy Scheider) tries to leave the organization.

What Works: Marathon Man is an impressive 1970s thriller. The story captures the paranoia often attributed to the period, with its mystery unfolding very gradually in such a way that keeps the audience interested while never withholding information as a cheap ploy. The first half of the film crosscuts action taking place all over the world and this is done very well; viewers will never lose sight of where they are in the story and the transitions between locations and plotlines are very smooth. There are a number of strong performances in Marathon Man including Dustin Hoffman as a naïve graduate student, Marthe Keller as his European girlfriend, and Roy Scheider as the disillusioned older brother. But of all the performances in the film, the one that makes the greatest impact is Laurence Olivier as Dr. Christian Szell, a former Nazi who uses his skills in dentistry to torture people into submission. Szell is one of the great villains in movies; the influence of Olivier’s performance can be seen in some later villains such as Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

What Doesn’t: Marathon Man is very much a film of the 1970s and so the staging of fights and other action scenes is consistent with the norms of the period. Fans of contemporary thrillers and action films should take that into consideration when viewing the film. Also, the ending is a bit hokey and indulges Hollywood wish fulfillment rather than going for a more challenging or character driven finale.

DVD extras: Featurettes and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Marathon Man is a fast-paced, carefully constructed thriller that ranks next to The French Connection and The Paralax View among other great 1970s crime and conspiracy films.

Episode: #288 (May 16, 2010)