Wednesday, April 04, 2007

 

Sound and fury signifying something


By Edward Copeland
In the post-Watergate era of the mid-1970s, paranoid thrillers seem to spring up with amazing regularity and recently I re-visited 1976's Marathon Man and was impressed that it plays much better than I recalled. The story is incredibly complicated and it takes you awhile to connect all the pieces, but John Schlesinger's thriller definitely proves worth the effort, even after 30+ years.


What really stood out for me this time, seeing it for the first time in a good DVD copy with the proper ratio and excellent sound was how much the sounds of the movie and especially the score by Michael Small, a composer whose name honestly rang no bell at all but who also worked on another '70s journey into paranoia, The Parallax View, the original Stepford Wives and Klute. The sound effects really work to increase the tension, from the very beginning with the NY car duel between an old German and an old Jew through the very end of the picture.

Marathon Man, named for the exercise regimen of lead character Thomas Levy (Dustin Hoffman) proves an apt metaphor because once Schlesinger's film begins to pick up a head of steam, it doesn't really let up until the race is over. Hoffman's character is supposed to be a doctoral student, though in the DVD extras Hoffman, producer Robert Evans and screenwriter William Goldman all acknowledge that he was too old for the part since he was pushing 40 at the time, but hell, he was 30 when he graduated from college in 1967's The Graduate.

As the villain of the piece, Nazi-in-hiding Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier, in a well-deserved Oscar-nominated turn), tells Thomas at one point, "I envy you your school days. Enjoy them fully. It's the last time in your life no one expects anything of you." In a way, Thomas Levy in many ways resembles Hoffman's David Sumner from Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, an essentially nonviolent man pushed to the edge by the circumstances in which he finds himself embroiled.

In case there are those out there who haven't seen Marathon Man, I'll spare too many details, but I do want to compliment the excellent cast from Hoffman and the superb Olivier to Roy Scheider and William Devane. Everyone fits the piece perfectly.

Schlesinger also shows real suspense chops here with this, which was his first try at making a thriller. In addition to keeping the story taut with unease and uncertainty, there also are some really nice throwaway moments. In the film's most infamous scene, when Szell begins to do some dental work on Thomas to extract information, longtime movie tough guy Marc Lawrence as one of his henchmen actually turns his back. Brutal beatings and killings are no problem for him, but dental work is too much.

While the film tries to encompass many political and historical issues such as Nazi war criminals on the run, the government being in bed with them and even passing glances at victims of the McCarthy era, they all end up being almost incidental to the thrills themselves. In a way, the entire film could be called a MacGuffin, but it's a damn good MacGuffin.


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Comments:
This is one of my dad's favorite movies (along with Parallax View and 3 Days of the Condor; he loves these kind of "paranoid" 1970's thrillers). I remember watching it with him when I was much younger and just loving it. To this day, we're both terrified of going to the dentist ("Is it safe?").
 
My dentist has a VCR/headset combo so people can watch movies if they are having extensive dental work done. This is one of the films in her collection.
 
Sounds like she has a sense of humor. Does she have Little Shop of Horrors or The In-Laws as well?
 
I knew I needed something at the grocery store. Floss. Thanks for the reminder!
 
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