The Best Movie Critic + thriller

Marathon Man

Marathon Man caught me totally off guard. I've never really had any burning desire to see it, but something set off my movie nose and it ended up at the top of my Netflix queue. I have a great movie nose, by the way, because Marathon Man is a keeper.

The movie begins with three seemingly unrelated plot 'spheres.' One involves Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman), a Columbia grad student who wants to run marathons and is really bad at picking up girls. Another is set in Paris, and follows the day-to-day doings of a 'real world' James Bond-type (Roy Schneider). The last introduces us to an aged ex-Nazi (Lawrence Olivier) living in exile in South America, who is planning... something... We are given not a single clue as to how these three plots are even tangentially related. And I'm not talking for five or ten minutes. It's a good hour into the movie before we even start to figure out what any of these characters have to do with each other. Watching these worlds collide is a joy.

Dustin Hoffman, in his best role, carries the movie on his shoulders. As the layers of the onion peel back, he becomes our onscreen avatar, experiencing the confusion and uncertainty with us and for us. Schneider's 'Doc' is one of the best screen badasses of the 70s. In my own personal heaven, there's a team-up movie starring Doc and Dirty Harry. When they 're-envisioned' James Bond for the Daniel Craig movies, they could only dream of making Bond this cool. And Olivier as Dr. Szell is just amazingly hammy... or hammy-ly amazing. I'm not sure which. He's great.

I'm only beginning my dive into what I believe is known as 'New American Cinema.' I've seen your Godfarthers, your French Connection, etc. Marathon Man is a strange anomaly in this period. John Schlesinger's visual manner and tone fit the style – they should coming from the guy who did Midnight Cowboy. However, the story itself is pure pulp. Hyper-complex, mind-bending pulp, but pulp nonetheless. It's an off-kilter, but winning combination.

(SPOILERS from here to the end, including the Magic Moment)

So many thrillers gear their audience to be hellbent on solving the mystery. “What does it all mean?” Maybe the most refreshing thing about Marathon Man is it's totally disinterest in solving anything, both in terms of plot and character. Not only are we left with no real understanding of the relevance or accuracy of what just happened, but in the end it’s hard to tell if there is even a thematic 'lesson' in Marathon Man. There's some heavy material about shadow organizations, Nazi operatives, and residual holocaust memory, but all within the framework of first a mystery, and second, a revenge story. I can’t say for certain whether Babe Levy got anything more out of these events than a big, loud, “WTF was that all about?” That’s kind of great, though. I feel totally satisfied, mainly because we see Babe come out of his shell as a character. He’s stronger at the end; he stood up for himself. On the other hand, he’s essentially lost everything that was important to him, so I can’t imagine he feels particularly proud or triumphant or anything.

Magic Moment: I bet you get total bragging rights at the Columbia University History Dept. if you’ve killed a real honest-to-god Nazi.

-Ben

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