Wednesday, November 13, 2013


(October 1976, U.S.)

I was a child of the movies of the 1970s. So, like any film fan who grew up in any given decade, there was lots of diversity to be noticed and appreciated. For those who understood the decade better than I did, it was a time of the so-called "New Hollywood" dominated by new talents as Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Altman and DePalma. For myself, it was disaster films, it was demonic horror films, it was science fiction blockbusters, and every once in a while, it was a solid thriller with intense performances from its stars. I'm talking about films like THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), DEATH WISH (1974), JAWS (1975), BLACK SUNDAY (1977) and MARATHON MAN, based on William Goldman's original novel and screenplay and directed by John Schlesinger, who'd also directed Dustin Hoffman in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969).

Dustin Hoffman as Thomas "Babe" Levy is an extraordinarily unique role for a man who may best be remembered for more simple, subdued characters as in THE GRADUATE, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and KRAMER VS. KRAMER. "Babe" is a dark character, who not only possesses the instincts and convictions for revenge, but can also express deep and uncompromised fear when his life is in mortal danger (just listen to him scream for help). He's a somewhat ordinary man who's working toward his doctrine in history at New York City's Columbia University who's also living with the haunted past of his father's suicide during the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, and as the title suggests, he's also training to run a complete marathon (presumably the New York City one). This is why he can run so fast in the streets when his life is in danger. Before he can even figure out what's happened to his life, he's being pursued by various bad guys who all come under the control and direction of Dr. Christian Szell (played wonderfully by Laurence Olivier), a Nazi war criminal who's forced to come out of hiding to New York City in order to retrieve a large quantity of diamonds that were in his brother's possession (also a Nazi war criminal) before he was killed in a car accident. "Babe" has nothing really to do with all of this except for the fact that his brother Henry (played by the great Roy Scheider) was involved with these guys, then got killed, and presumably said something to "Babe" before he died in his arms. We, as the audience, know that he didn't, but the bad guys don't. So all of this leads to capture, torture, escape, and the ultimate climactic revenge. Even the woman he loves, Elsa (played by Marthe Keller), is also in on the whole thing (the poor man just can't catch a break!).

Now, having mentioned the word torture, I can't discuss MARATHON MAN without getting into what can only be called the infamous dental scene. If you've seen this film, then you know damn well what I'm talking about! What is it exactly that creeps us out the most about this sequence? Is it the persistent, unreasonable repeated question of "Is it safe?" from Szell? Is it the horrible anticipation of what Szell is planning to do to "Babe" when he displays his dental equipment on the table for us to see? Or is it simply that horrible shriek that comes from sweet Dustin Hoffman when that dental pick finally finds its target inside the poor man's unwilling mouth? Whatever it is, I, like so many others shudder at the entire sequence and the horrible implications of such torture. To this day, my friends, whenever I sit in the dentist's chair, I have to literally force myself NOT to think of that infamous scene in MARATHON MAN. Shit, I think I even shared that fact with my dentist, too! He laughed because he's seen the film, too.

When considering this film and it's place in the decade of the 1970s, I'm also confronted with the memory of a decade that also gave us a number of films that very clearly depicted the grim ugliness of the city of New York. Two of them include the above mentioned THE FRENCH CONNECTION, DEATH WISH and also include other titles such as SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and THE WARRIORS. Yes, the city was damn ugly and disgusting back then (sometimes I think it still is!) and Hollywood knew damn well how to use it to its advantage to not only give us some great thrillers, but even some great dramas, too (Hell, even Superman was flying over the city in 1978)! I've also found it particularly intriguing that during the sequence when Szell is trying to get his diamonds appraised in the Diamond District on 47th Street, it's by sheer chance and incredible memory that he's recognized by not one, but two Holocaust survivors. I don't know whether I find the recognitions more fascinating or the fact that one of them is killed (by Szell) and the other is run down by a car only moments later. Life is certainly strange, especially on film.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Peter Janeway: (in the car with Babe): "All right, things are starting to come together. Keep your head down before you get it blown off. Those two guys I just wasted work for a man named Christian Szell. Does that name mean anything to you?"
Babe: "No."
Janeway: "He ran the experimental camp in Auchswitz, where they called him "The White Angel" - "Die Weisse Engel" - because he has this incredible head of white hair. He's probably the most wealthy and most wanted Nazi alive. And he's hiding out somewhere in Uruguay. In 1945, Szell let it be known around Auschwitz that he could provide escape for any Jew who is willing to pay the price. He started with gold naturally, but very quickly worked his way up to diamonds. You heard any of this before?"
Babe: "No."
Janeway: "Szell saw the end early. They snuck his brother into America with his diamonds. They're right here in New York in a safe deposit box. Szell's brother had the key. The only other key kept by Szell in Uruguay. And now, if he has to come out of hiding to use it, he's gonna expose himself to incredible risk. Well, everything worked out fine until his brother got killed in a head-on collision with an oil truck."
Babe: "Why did you say "naturally" when you said it started with gold?"
Janeway: "Because he knocked it out of the Jews' teeth before he burned them. Szell was a dentist."
Babe: "He's not coming to America, Mr. Janeway. He's here."
Janeway: "He can't be here. We'd already know of it."
Babe: "He's here. He was the dentist that almost killed me. He kept saying, "Is it safe?, is it safe?" over and over."
Janeway: "Did he have white hair? Keep your head down! Did he have white hair?"
Babe: "He was bald."
Janeway: "Bald? The son-of-a-bitch has shaved his head! He's here! And he's panicked."
Babe: "Why is he after me?"
Janeway: "Because your brother was one of the couriers that transported the diamonds to Paris and, obviously, Szell thinks Doc said something to you before he died. Now did he say anything to you?"
Babe: "What do you mean my brother? You saying my brother worked for Szell?"
Janeway: "No! He worked for us! Everything we do cuts both ways. Szell ratted on all of his buddies. He kept track on all of the old matches throughout the world. Whenever we want to bring one of 'em in, we went to Szell. Now listen, Babe. You gotta do one thing for me, just one thing!"
Babe: "Name it. What?"
Janeway: "Quit protecting Doc!"
Babe: "I'm not!"
Janeway: "He kept himself alive long enough to tell you something! Now what did he say to you?"
Babe: "He didn't say anything!"
Janeway: "He must've said something! Tell me what he said!"
Babe: "Nothing!"
Janeway: "Shit!"


  1. OK, two back to back, that works for me. This is a terrific film. I re-watched it earlier this year, and the torture scene is just as gruesome as you described. This is one of those 70s films that makes NYC fascinating and repulsive at the same time. That ratty apartment that Babe lives in is almost as creepy as the warehouse where he is taken to be interrogated. Doc was such a son of a bitch in the restaurant scene, you almost hate that he was right. I read the book and the whole story of how Babe is pushed through to escape by the voices of the great marathoners he admired just could not work in the film, but when I see the movie I hear their voices anyway.

  2. Richard, perhaps the "voices", as you describe them, explains the constant flashback to the marathon runner we keep seeing on film, as well as the picture on Babe's wall. I never could figure out just who that man was supposed to be in relation to Babe.