Have you ever gone to a dentist before? Of course you have. (Unless you're British!) And that's why the torture scene in "Marathon Man" is arguably the most famous of all mainstream torture scenes. Even the infamous ear segment in "Reservoir Dogs" fails to relate to people around the world the same way as this does. Not everyone has had his or her ear chopped off.
Anyone who has gone to a dentist before can relate to the fear and excruciating pain that Babe (Dustin Hoffman) experiences when he is asked, "Is it safe?" and has no idea what his interrogator is talking about, then finds himself being given a root canal without any Novocain.
The interrogator is Szell (Laurence Olivier), a dreaded German murderer who carried out awful deeds during World War II and offered Jews a free ticket out--for a hefty price.
Szell's question ("Is it safe?") exists because he needs to know whether or not it is safe to withdraw diamonds he stole from Jews during World War II from a safety deposit box. As the film opens, Szell's brother dies in a car crash, which sets up this entire aspect of the plot, since his brother had the key to the vault.
Babe's brother, Doc (Roy Scheider, "JAWS"), comes to visit him in New York City, but turns up at his apartment with stab wounds. Babe soon finds out that Doc was part of a secret "Division" (CIA black-ops stuff) that was on Svell's trail. Believing that Doc may have spilled the beans to Babe, Svell kidnaps the college graduate and this is where the famous torture scene starts. "Is it safe? Is it safe? Is...it...safe...?"
"I don't know what you're talking about!"
"Marathon Man" is often considered a classic of the thriller genre, and it certainly is. It has its flaws, and sometimes it seems a bit average from a technical viewpoint, but it set the stage for many gritty, coarse thrillers that would follow in later years. It is still arguably one of the greatest of them all.
The title comes from the fact that Hoffman's character, Babe, is a marathon jogger. He runs every single day, and so when he finally manages to escape from Szell's grasp, you can imagine what a hard time they have chasing after him. In retrospect, the title takes on two different (and ironic) indications.
The well-known story about Olivier's advice to Hoffman on the set of the film has been referenced many times (even by Steve Martin in "Saturday Night Live"), so it almost seems pointless to divulge into it. Basically, in the words of Steve Martin, "Hoffman came to the set one day looking absolutely wretched, and Sir Larry said, 'Dusty, you look absolutely wretched!', and it turns out that he had been awake for twenty-four hours, because at this point in the movie, his character had been, so Larry replied, 'Oh, Dusty, why don't you just try acting?', and the American retorted, 'Act on this, you British fag,' and Larry replied, 'I asked for a meal, not a snack!'"
So perhaps Steve Martin made up the end of that story, but the beginning is true. Dustin was a true "method actor," and by the end of the film, it's clearly evident that Dustin is indeed quite tired, both mentally and physically. I doubt whether acting could unleash the same sort of deadness that shines through in Babe had Hoffman simply tried "acting."
Another arguable fact is that this is Laurence Olivier's most famous role. It's certainly his most villainous. It's a career highlight; in a role that many critics called Olivier's finest hour, and I think should certainly be remembered as his most devilish. "Is it safe? Is it safe?" Every time it's spoken it sends a shiver down my spine.
Two very important films of Dustin Hoffman's career came out in 1976: "All the President's Men" and, of course, "Marathon Man." They are both universally regarded as some of his best work, and it's not a surprising fact, really, since it's true that they really *are* some of his best work. (Quite incidentally, the renowned William Goldman wrote both screenplays, and the latter of the two titles was based on his own novel.)
Thrillers of such striking power and ferocity are rarely made nowadays in Hollywood. "Marathon Man" is cold, hard, gritty and dirty, and one of the best of the genre. It's a modern-day masterpiece, perhaps barely short of greatness, but a masterpiece nonetheless. You may never want to go to the dentist again.
It's "safe" to say that "Marathon Man" is a terrific movie.