Saturday, April 28, 2012

Genre Spotlight #1.4: Marathon Man

Every decade brings new worries, and genre films are particularly good at capturing the cultural and political zeitgeist of the time. Every month, Genre Spotlight takes a look at a genre in a particular time and place, shows a certain director or screenwriter approached said genre, and tries to shine some light on what the cultural significance of the movement was. This month takes a look at the political conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s.

Grade: 83 (A-)

William Goldman’s novel Marathon Man was released in 1974, the same year the Watergate scandals broke. Neither the book nor the 1976 film adaptation features any direct connections to the scandal. Yet Marathon Man still has the mood of paranoia that runs with post-Watergate America. It’s a tale of a world filled with evil people, government agencies willing to work with them, and young people who fall by the wayside because of it.

Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a college graduate student and an aspiring marathon runner. Babe, a history student, is haunted by his father’s suicide following McCarthy-era persecution. He believes that his brother Henry “Doc” Levy (Roy Scheider) is a suit working for an oil company, but Doc is really a government agent. One of the men Doc is forced to deal with is Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), a former Nazi torturer known as “The White Angel” who gives up fellow former Nazis for diamonds. When Szell’s brother is killed in New York, he travels to America, kills Doc (suspecting him of robbery), and torments Babe, whom he believes knows what Doc was “planning” to do with his diamonds.

Marathon Man is directed by John Schlesinger, a British filmmaker whose films in both the U.K. (Billy Liar, Darling, Sunday Bloody Sunday) and the U.S. (the Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy) have a terrific sense of time and place. Marathon Man, like Midnight Cowboy before it, captures the New York of its era. Midnight Cowboy shows young men living in squalor and being rejected by both the square world and the counterculture. Marathon Man is a nastier beast,  a film filled with governments that aren’t just unhelpful, they’re untrustworthy. Schlesinger and cinematographer Conrad Hall’s photography is gritty, intense, and (aided by the new Steadicam) precise. But the sound design to Marathon Man is perhaps more impressive- the sound of Hoffman’s feet hitting the ground while he’s running, Hoffman screaming when he finds his dead brother, or the screeching noise that accompanies the chases are more effective in telling the story.

Hoffman’s Babe is a mild-mannered, liberal pacifist college student. He’s sloppy, unkempt, and more interested in studying history than being a part of it. He’s writing a paper on “tyranny in American political life”, and it’s not just colorful background for the character. His father’s death, and the era of McCarthyism, hangs over the events of the film like a hazy waking nightmare. His father had been innocent of any wrongdoing, but he was persecuted by an untrustworthy faction of the government all the same. By the end of the film, Babe, another innocent pacifist with leftist leanings, will be tortured, chased after, and further persecuted by the government, all to help a former Nazi.

In stark contrast to his brother, Scheider’s Doc is very neat and well put together (and, it has been argued, implicitly homosexual). Doc isn’t a bad guy, but he’s a man more than willing to play dirty for his country. Schlesinger made a clever bit of casting by putting Scheider, the cop from The French Connection, against Hoffman, the titular character of Mike Nichol’s The Graduate. Where the latter is nervous, unsure of himself, and hopelessly idealistic, Scheider is jaded and more than willing to work with men he believes to be evil. That willingness costs him his life.

And what of that evil? Szell believes he was serving his country, and he has no qualms about anything he did. Greed has pushed him to the point of absolute evil. He is cold, pitiless, precise, and eerily refined (Olivier is perfectly cast here). The film’s most famous scene (“is it safe?”) involves his torture of Babe with dental instruments. Schlesinger uses the sound of Szell’s drill (plus the cold, sterile environment and bright light) to do most of the work, not showing the more graphic details, but it hits anyway. It’s another intellectual being cast to the wayside by the American government, but it’s also a tie-in to the Holocaust, with the Jewish Babe being tortured by a former Nazi.

Schlesinger and Goldman occasionally push the Jewish vs. Nazi connection a bit far (setting it near Yom Kippur, an early car chase between Szell’s brother and a Jewish man), and some of the plot threads are left dangling. But Marathon Man is a more than effective 70s era paranoid thriller, one that taps into both Watergate era paranoia and the knowledge that some Nazi war criminals were still at large (Joseph Mengele would die in South America three years later). It’s a tale of a decent man in an indecent world, what he must do to survive, and how he remains moral after having to turn to violence. In a world gone mad, it’s important to stay decent. 

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