Movie of the Week: ‘Marathon Man’

“Marathon Man” (1976) – In director Sydney Pollack’s NYC comedy “Tootsie” (1982), Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) runs around Manhattan a bit.  One scene, actually.  He’s in a hurry, but not a desperate one.  This struggling actor lost a part in “The Iceman Cometh” to a rival, and he’s hustling on foot to his agent’s (Pollack) office to vent. 

In director John Schlesinger’s NYC thriller “Marathon Man”, Hoffman runs as well, but for two very different reasons.  First, Thomas Levy (Dustin Hoffman) – nicknamed ‘Babe’ – is a marathon runner, so we frequently see him train in Central Park and track his latest and greatest times.  This training, however, comes in handy during a highly perilous time – later in the film – because Thomas sprints for his life.

“Marathon Man” is a dark thrill ride, but admittedly, takes a while to get to speed up.  With a runtime of 124 minutes, we spend the first 45 minutes or so slowly understanding Babe’s present-day troubles.  He lives in a small, cluttered apartment and frequently embeds himself in his Columbia doctorate program.  His education sounds enlightening, but he’s just chasing ghosts from his father’s suicide via his dissertation. 

Doc (Roy Scheider) and Thomas (Dustin Hoffman)

Meanwhile, his older brother Doc (Roy Scheider) is stuck in an espionage web, although Thomas mistakenly believes that he’s a wealthy businessman. 

Doc’s work catches up with him, and suddenly, Thomas becomes a person of interest.  Meanwhile, he doesn’t know any top secret info other than his crush on a Swiss woman (Marthe Keller) who he meets at the library.   In reality, he doesn’t hide his feelings in the slightest.  

Although a pair of suited ruffians rough him up, the titular villain is Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), a mysterious, brooding elderly gent living in Uruguay who flies to New York to cause massive trouble for our athletic student. 

Thomas and Szell’s first meeting contains one of the most quotable lines in movie history, as the menacing antagonist asks, “Is it safe?”

Dr. Christian Szell (Sir Laurence Olivier)

We don’t know, but we realize that Thomas is not.

The Academy nominated Olivier for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and although Szell is the most memorable figure – for all the wrong reasons – in “Marathon Man”, we hope that Hoffman’s Babe can break his chains as a victim of this chilling man and with his past. 

⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by: John Schlesinger

Written by: William Goldman

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Sir Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, Marthe Keller, and William Devane

Runtime: 124 minutes

Rated: R

Image credits: Paramount Pictures

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