- Marathon Man [John Schlesinger, 1976] is not an expanded edition of The Running Man.
- Marathon Man is not the same thing as Miracle Mile. Even though both of them get a rating of 83.7% from my film-assessment calculator [by which I mean my head].
- If you’ve avoided those pitfalls, your impression of Marathon Man is probably close to reality. It’s somewhere between The Parallax View and Ludlum-style international intrigue, set in the New York of Three Days of the Condor and Dog Day Afternoon. Unlike Parallax and Dog Day, it is not going to nobly shy away from escapism. The twists and turns will be comprehensible, and you know from the posters that there will be a conclusion and it will be at least somewhat conclusive.
- If you want to see American cinema’s funniest bumper-to-bumper city-streets car chase, watch Marathon Man. I am not joking. It’s one of the first scenes in the film. An invective-laden slapstick dispute between two senior citizens. Then s-word gets real.
- Dustin Hoffman’s character is supposed to be called “Babe”. He was “Babe” throughout the novel, but he’s usually Tom Levy or Thomas Babington Levy in the film. If you hear the name “Babe”, that’s him.
- Dustin Hoffman’s brother is supposed to be called “Doc”. When he’s writing a letter to “Doc”, this is to his brother, not to his professor / thesis adviser. Maybe I’m unusual in how much this confused me.
- Laurence Olivier is fantastic and believably ruthless, embodying a lifetime of waiting, as Dr. Szell. You may be shocked at how smart his character is, and how irrational Dustin Hoffman’s character becomes. This makes Hoffman seem like an Action Hero. As opposed to Warren Beatty in The Parallax View, whose single-minded ambition to make sense of the world is the height of folly.
- William Devane is an actor I had mostly heard of in a derisive way, like Robert Urich or William Bendix. Devane’s big open face and big fluffy hair are perfect for his character here. Agree? [Y/N]
- Keep an eye on the characters’ watches. I don’t know if they mean anything, but the camera often seems interested in them.
- If you’ve recently seen The Parallax View, wait 12 months before watching Marathon Man. The reason is the soundtrack. Michael Small’s score for The Parallax View is a masterpiece of icy repetitivism. Tension is constantly built up and then resolved at points that don’t really correspond to the film’s events, compounding the viewer’s feeling that nothing is to be trusted. Small did the score for Marathon Man a couple years later, and it seems like a pale shadow of Parallax‘s. At a few moments of maximum sinisterness, set against brutalist architecture, there’s a motif, basically “Dr. Szell’s Unease Theme”, which starts out exactly like the most prominent melody from Parallax View, but lacks the resolution. The score isn’t bad, but it’s like comparing Match Point to Crimes and Misdemeanors. Don’t follow up the greater with the lesser.
Finally, a note on Dog Day Afternoon [Sidney Lumet, 1975].
I can’t think of another work that sends such an effective anti-authoritarian message while avoiding any particular political point. Sonny Wortzik is clearly a bozo, and he doesn’t even seem to like anyone, but he isn’t trying to be ruthless. He doesn’t want his family to suffer, but it’s not clear how he thinks he’s avoiding that. His co-robber Sal [John Cazale] is obviously unreliable as a result of low self-esteem and confusion, but Sonny does everything he can to keep Sal in line.
He’s sick of spending his days doing work he isn’t good at, but he doesn’t know what he is good at. Like Howard Beale, he’s fed up with a life of repression, but he can’t create anything to replace it with. The plan he came up with seemed literally foolproof, and yet the things that go wrong are not exactly unforeseeable. He gets into a desperate situation where pride might make him think he has nothing to lose, but he never gets to that point. He exploits the situation in order to have a sense of pride, not to have actual power over others. His hostages look at him and hope he’ll call the whole thing off and go home. He represents the man who will never get far in life, but is that his fault? He’s not crazy, he doesn’t have bad intentions, he’s a loser. Why is it that the only possibility he sees for happiness is something that wouldn’t even make sense to him if you explained it to him? How many people are in that position?
Meanwhile the police are clearly in the right, but they seem lazy in their approach to a mostly-routine situation. The fact that it is routine means that Detective Moretti has a plan in mind and doesn’t get too emotional, doesn’t take things personally. Sonny has no problem with that, his dearest wish is to Make a Deal of some sort, but the hostages start to resent at the lack of urgency. What do they want Det. Moretti to do, pretend to panic? Maybe he should, but that’s not his job.
More importantly, the cops hold all the cards in the long run, but they’re so clumsy about it. They would break a butterfly on the wheel. They don’t take any risks, and Sonny is risking his life for no reason at all, so can’t they help him out? The look of disappointment on Penelope Allen’s head bank teller, when it turns out the cops were lying even more than we assumed they were, is just devastating. The cops saved her life with a careful series of relatively ethical contrivances, and she’ll never trust them again.
And yet it’s not clear what the authorities could do. They can’t wait until the end of time for this situation to resolve itself. They inherently have a certain level of responsibility to deal fairly with their antagonists. Once his ridiculousness surpasses that threshold, they have to get ruthless and have no limits on their power. I was shaken at the end. My thoughts ran like this…don’t trust a government, trust the people you think you can trust. Look around at the people you see at work every day. Would it be that bad to get stuck in a small building with them for 24 hours? What are you afraid of?