December 30, 2016
Marathon Man (1976)
Grade: 57/100

Director: John Schlesinger
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider

What it's about. Dustin Hoffman is a Columbia graduate student. He is also training for his first marathon. He meets European beauty Marthe Keller, and they are soon an item. Hoffman's older brother, Roy Scheider, arrives for a visit. Hoffman thinks he's a businessman, but Scheider is actually a government agent, whose boss is William Devane.

Scheider meets with former Nazi Laurence Olivier, whose enormous wealth consists of diamonds in a New York City safe deposit box. Olivier, a U.S. government informant, has returned to the U.S. to take possession of the diamonds. But he distrusts Scheider, and during a meeting at night in an empty park, he fatally stabs him.

Because it is a movie, Scheider crawls some distance to Hoffman's apartment, and dies. Olivier believes Scheider told Hoffman something important before his passing. Olivier's bodyguards kidnap Hoffman, and Olivier, a dentist, tortures poor Hoffman, who knows nothing.

Because it is a movie, Hoffman manages to escape, but is now targeted by both Olivier and Devane. Keller has all along been a spy for Olivier, and sets up Hoffman in a "safe house." Because it is a movie, the naive amateur Hoffman comes out on top despite a body count consisting of the entire supporting cast.

How others will see it. Marathon Man was another box office hit for Dustin Hoffman. It was also a critical favorite, and received four Golden Globe nominations, along with an Oscar nod for Laurence Olivier for Best Supporting Actor. Olivier was believed terminally ill at the time, but his cancer miraculously went into remission.

Today at, the film has a respectable 46K user votes and a fairly high user rating of 7.5 out of 10. The grades are consistent across all demographics. Women over 45 bestow a 7.7, presumably pleased that the bad guys all get theirs while "nice guy" Hoffman gets away scot-free, aside from bad dental work.

Marathon Man remains notorious today for its torture scenes, especially the repeated Olivier line "Is it safe?" Certainly, the film's plot is confusing, but that only compels viewing, in the hopes that the increasingly tangled plot will somehow be woven back together. Most who see the film regard it as a tense thriller and care little about whether it all makes much sense.

How I felt about it. Marathon Man works best if regarded as a surreal bad dream. This is a movie where professional killers wear suits and ties as if they are bankers. And the U.S. government takes the side of a Nazi at the expense of its own American agent, and his student brother. It is a dark, cynical movie, made two years after the Watergate scandal forced Nixon out of office, and one year after Ford pardoned Nixon "for any crimes he might have committed against the United States while president."

It is interesting that Hoffman is determined to intercept Olivier, presumably with intent to kill him. This plan has little chance of succeeding. For example, he relies on information provided by Devane, who is completely untrustworthy and in fact wants to see him dead, to ensure his silence.

After Hoffman somehow manages to get to the bank before Olivier, to get the drop on him, he burns several minutes toying with Olivier when, presumably, the police have been called concerning his intrusion in an important water works building. Yet, Hoffman is able to exit the building without incident, and can return to his former life as a student as if nothing has happened.

The ending works out as it does to satisfy the audience, who identifies with the "innocent" Hoffman. The more likely outcome is Olivier slitting Hoffman's throat while he was bound to the dentist chair. Hoffman's body would be disposed of, and Olivier would be arrested the next day at the bank while attempting to retrieve the diamonds. In this would-be version of the movie, Olivier becomes the central character instead of Hoffman. But it would not be "safe" for Paramount, who, after all, was in business to make money.