CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM (16)
August 16, 2019
One of 25 installments in a series of enthusiastic posts analyzing and celebrating some of our favorite action movies from the Seventies (1974–1983).
MARATHON MAN | d. JOHN SCHLESINGER | 1976
Most noir films from the ’70s, when revisited (especially after an interval of years), betray a certain no-longer-current deliberacy, a routine of establishing shots, interstitial scenes, unhurried pacing, all contributing to a sense of the film being — perhaps unfairly — just a bit… long. This isn’t a matter of value so much as of time — even the most Luddite among us have become too-accustomed to staccato editing, cut-and-paste scores, character and plot notes pared to the bones of convention. But Marathon Man is an exception to this trend. True, this thriller is hardly fast-paced, soaks its story in patient period detail, and reveals its plot points only when necessary. Yet such is the confidence of the whole thing that your attention never flags — a confidence exactly balanced between Schlesinger’s artistic taste and writer William Goldman’s pulp acuity. For high shamelessness, Marathon Man is hard to top.
This is one self-consciously heady mix: Auschwitz dentists, amoral spies, Chinese assassins, McCarthyism, ghetto street gangs, Holocaust survivors, dental torture, Central Park crime, Ivy League academia, riots in Paris, decay in New York… in more flagrant, flippant hands (and only a touch more misogyny), the landscape would be something out of Robbe-Grillet. But in the care of John Schlesinger, every aspect of the film is scrupulously tasteful, right down to the camera’s swerve into a blinding light bulb as the sound of the dental drill whines into poor Dustin Hoffman’s “healthy nerve.” Marathon Man isn’t camp because everyone here is so good at finding a solid purchase within the plot swerves. Each location is vividly realized, and with complexity. The hierarchies of money — in Paris and New York — are always visible, as are the enclaves of ethnicity, and the portrait of New York as a melting pot of fugitives and survivors carries a rich emotional resonance. In particular, the scene of Holocaust survivors recognizing Laurence Olivier’s war criminal as he hurries through the diamond district conjures a sickening, unexpected horror.
The cast is a mix of bantam smoothies like Roy Scheider and William Devane — and Olivier, immaculately brilliant — and a raft of solid old pros filling out the supporting cast. Marthe Keller is great in an underwritten, half-cooked role (with an appallingly dated meet-cute with Hoffman). The only real fly in this luscious ointment — 43 years on — is Hoffman himself. 10 years too old for the part in 1974, he’s one big explosive bag of method nonsense. Yes, there’s the famous anecdote about Hoffman and Olivier, but the dentistry scenes aren’t the problem. Hoffman’s just so furiously acting (in every goddam scene, honestly, there ought to be a blinking sign over his head) that it regularly takes you out of the movie. The tics are visible miles away and the offhand smiles, interjections, and stammers land like karate chops to otherwise normal conversation (to imagine an actor like Lenny Baker in the role is to picture a far superior film without its sheen of show-schmaltz). That said, it doesn’t actually matter — this isn’t a film determined to represent the real. Goldman’s script is so silkily brazen, and Schlesinger’s direction so icily deft, and — to give him credit — Hoffman’s presence so fervent that the troubling strengths of Marathon Man won’t be denied.
CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION | Madeline Ashby on BLADE RUNNER | Erik Davis on BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA | Mimi Lipson on CONVOY | Luc Sante on BLACK SUNDAY | Josh Glenn on THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR | Lisa Jane Persky on SORCERER | Devin McKinney on THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE | Adam McGovern on QUINTET | Mandy Keifetz on DEATH RACE 2000 | Peter Doyle on SOUTHERN COMFORT | Jonathan Lethem on STRAIGHT TIME | Heather Kapplow on THE KILLER ELITE | Tom Nealon on EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE | Mark Kingwell on THE EIGER SANCTION | Sherri Wasserman on ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK | Gordon Dahlquist on MARATHON MAN | David Levine on PARALLAX VIEW | Matthew Sharpe on ROLLERBALL | Ramona Lyons on ALIEN | Dan Piepenbring on WHITE LINE FEVER | Marc Weidenbaum on THIEF | Carolyn Kellogg on MAD MAX | Carlo Rotella on KUNG FU | Peggy Nelson on SMOKEY & THE BANDIT | Brian Berger on FRIDAY FOSTER.
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