Tuesday, September 6, 2016
REVIEW: MARATHON MAN
MARATHON MAN is the Dustin Hoffman of movies. It seemingly doesn't have a lot going on, yet once you start paying attention, you find all these fascinating little nooks and crannies in the stories and characters. It's the sort of mature thriller that Hollywood either doesn't make anymore or viewing audiences have no interest anymore and it rules. Not quite as bombastic as a James Bond movie and not quite as paranoid as a Robert Redford political thriller, MARATHON MAN opts to simmer its story to a boiling point and then end once the pot reaches a boil and spills over a little bit. It's restrained, masterful filmmaking.
The movie is an absolute masterclass in structure and how to reveal information to an audience. The plot is pretty simple; a marathon runner named Babe gets caught up in a web of espionage revolving around an old Nazi attempting to recover his diamonds from a safety deposit box in New York City. What makes MARATHON MAN stand out is that we aren't really sure that's the main story until the movie has been unfolding for about an hour. Instead, we're shown a seemingly random series of events and characters and we try to piece them all together until the movie fully explains how everything (and everyone) is connected. Then, for a full hour, the movie pays off every single thing we've seen to that point. It's astounding. There aren't huge twists and turns in the film, but the reveals of basic plot and character information carry so much weight that it feels like the entire game has changed entirely.
That being said, MARATHON MAN does not suffer fools gladly. It demands that you pay attention, which can be a little difficult in a home viewing setting. But if you dedicate the time (or the time to rewind when you realize something important happened in the last scene) you will be reward immensely. It's one of the most satisfying films I've seen in a while. And while all this dense plot structure and tangible information stuff is great, the movie is also crazy watchable.
This, of course, is due in no small part to the performances. The cast is pitch-perfect and every part seems tailor made to fit these actors. Hoffman brings an unconfidence to Babe that immediately endears you to him once he finds himself at the center of all this spy stuff. He never asked for this and he certainly isn't prepared to deal with it. Roy Scheider as Doc is cool as hell and gets the best "action" scene in the whole movie. If I were a viewer in 1976, I would have been clamoring for a Doc prequel or series of novels. Of course, the biggie here is Lawrence Olivier as Szell. His performance earned him an Oscar nomination and rightfully so. I mean, what is there to say about him? Szell is an all-timer movie villain who is likely not mentioned in best villain conversations because Olivier plays him so effectively. He isn't in the business of being over the top or obsessed with world domination. He just wants his diamonds back; and the lengths he will go to get them back are chilling.
Everyone's happy when Dustin Hoffman shows up in a movie and yet, I think we take him for granted. He's not a showy actor and he's not quite a workhorse character actor either. He's a good leading man, but he's just barely not handsome enough to carry an action movie on his shoulders. He's pretty conventional in every way. But the way he is able to synthesize those conventions, he demands your attention. You're drawn to him even when he's not being outwardly charismatic. There's just something about him. Much in the same way, MARATHON MAN isn't a ground-breaking 1970's spy thriller. It's pretty conventional, and supremely quiet for a spy movie. But there's something that draws you in and invites you to explore the spaces in which it exists. MARATHON MAN is a wholly satisfying viewing experience and it's a little off the beaten path of "all-time" 70's movies. But much like it's leading man, you'll be happy to see it more than once.