9 February 2010 | johnnyboyz
Fascinating and chilling in equal measure, the film is an exercise of pure threat told from the perspective of someone caught up in the firing line.
Amidst the the early morning glare of the rising sun and whatever few others are up at this time, a young man jogs along the beaten track in an attempt to keep in shape. This, as he spots a fellow jogger and begins a fairly innocent 'chase', although the individual manages to outrun our young man to some pretty ominous music. The entire exchange is eventually inter-cut in a bizarre manner with some found footage of a marathon runner completely disconnected to the events we're witnessing. Marathon Man begins with this rather simplistic sequence of a young man jogging and very slowly turns what is an everyday activity, or an unspectacular image, into something that is quite sinister. It pitches the tone of the film perfectly, establishing an everyday guy and placing him in a sinister chase situation which it is discovered is so easily to get involved in, while systematically foreshadowing the eerie turns the narrative will take to do with having to run for one's life.
Marathon Man is like that; there's something very effective behind its ability to inject terror into a relatively routine situation. That very primal sense of 'running for one's life', whatever the situation, is tapped into perfectly by director John Schlesinger, who paints a bleak and uncomplimentary picture of New York City and of the scummy, lying and double-dealing lowlifes whom inhabit it. Amongst all of this is the character of Thomas Levy (Hoffman), nicknamed 'Babe', a student of history who is attempting to follow in his now deceased father's footsteps by engaging academically in the same field. Babe will later end up following in the same footsteps as his another family member; his brother Henry (Scheider), but for all the wrong reasons. Even Henry is referred to by his nickname for a lot of the film, that being 'Doc', thus repeating the process of use of an alias and tapping into that highly consistent theme of suspicion and what one's true identity is. In a film in which a lot of people act as if they're one thing in order to garner an advantage, this use of improper name and alias to act as an alter-ego is interesting.
But Marathon Man provides us with a ray of light in the form of Babe, a down to Earth and accessible lead with whom we are able to relate in his innocence and copious levels of naivety to his situation when espionage and betrayal catches up with him. In what might appear to be a complex and rather deep story revolving around said narrative characteristics of espionage, smuggling and spies; it is ironic that mere fate brings certain people to New York for certain reasons. This, when a stark disagreement between two elderly men about something that relates to times and events far deeper than mere road rage.
If Babe is a figure cut from a stone that shy but eager in his personality and traits, then Laurence Oliver's Christian Szell, a doctor well informed in the art of dentistry, represents the polar-opposite as this elderly and frail man, but someone who has made a life out of other people's sheer misery; a man that has seemingly existed to inflict pain and suffering wherever he's gone. When we first encounter him, he is a lonesome figure in a heavily fortified and secluded place of dwelling in the middle of a South American jungle. Several newspapers are scattered around, some in English; some in Spanish and some in German which establishes a sense of expertise in language, although the items that stand out are the uncanny skulls which line the shelves, most of which contain odd shaped teeth which catch our eye. The sequence informs us of a man whom requires security and isolation as well as someone whom is most probably trilingual. In one swooping camera shot, we are left to read into as much as we can about this one individual, while a lesser film of the thriller ilk would have seen a bunch of people gather in a room; brought Szell's face up on a screen and laid out everything for the uninformed characters and audience alike.
Babe's involvement in what it is he ends up neck deep in is ultimately instigated by the unsightly sequence in which the death of somebody we do not see coming occurs in his arms. The battered and bloodied body of a blade attack victim acting as the first truly pieces of shocking imagery Babe has seen, the blood from the body staining his plain, bright white vest that he wears thus staining him, and therefore linking him to the world the departing life was connected to. The film is a tight, gripping piece; a film that clashes a world of smuggling, deceit and murder with the quieter, more routine world of a young man who's nervous around girls and just attempting to make-good out of some pretty harsh living conditions.
It progresses to encompass a series of quite extraordinary sequences, the one of which everyone remembers more fondly than others being the torture sequence involving a dentist's drill, a sadomasochistic game of fear; terror; power play; ambiguous questions; honest but disbelieved answers and sheer pain. One other passage of play sees the lead running down a street in the early hours of the morning, whatever light there is being provided by way of the street lamps, as what we perceive to be a wailing, screeching musical score encompassing this, only for it to turn out to be an approaching ambulance which hurtles past, catching us all off guard. Marathon Man is a taut thriller, drawing its audience in and gripping them with a number of basic conventions, raging from the use of a mere MacGuffin to instilling a very visceral, very effective sense of fear by way of ambiguous character intentions and pure threat. If ever there was an essential thriller to see, it may well be Marathon Man.