“It isn’t safe.”
Not far below their surfaces and sometimes on them, the thrillers of the 1970s were about the post-World War 2 order on the verge of breakdown. The heave and convulsion of the 1960s had passed and the Age of Aquarius had failed to dawn, leaving the hangover of systems of power that sputtered on without a moral center as the most dynamic economy capitalism had ever produced started to jam and shred the gears. Marathon Man, like so many of the great 70s thrillers, isn’t directly about that, but director John Schlesinger films it anyway: the story takes place in a New York and Paris that are on the way down after their best days, places of riots, bombings, strikes, garbage, hatred around every corner waiting to break out. One such breakout launches the story, unchanged from William Goldman’s novel, which brings in the early years and founding of the postwar order in the form of the McCarthy hearings and most powerfully in the form of Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), a bigshot Nazi living in hiding in South America, a wealthy man from the diamonds and gold he stripped from Jewish teeth in the ovens of Auschwitz, and from the couriers who sell the diamonds and get the money to him, who include American government agents. The paranoia of the 1970s came from that sense of corruption, of rot; the belief that the institutions of the Cold War had outlived their usefulness and were falling apart from within.
As in most of his films, Schlesinger works to create an ordinary look and then heightens it just enough and at just the right moments to unsettle us. Director of photography Conrad Hall does a lot of the work on that point, leaning away from the shadows and starkness of In Cold Blood (a look he’d bring back in Road to Perdition) and staying with a muted palette until he hits us with an explosion or a light in our faces or diamonds in a star filter. Michael Small’s score stays largely quiet, too, using mostly piano and a recurring dissonant drone to keep us from ever getting comfortable. (David Shire’s score for Zodiac and Alberto Iglesias’ score for Che Part Two both owe something to this.) There’s a good 1970s look to all the actors, too, even the smallest ones; the future star of the best film of the “70s,” Treat Williams, actually gets the first line of the movie.
Most paranoid thrillers have an innocent at their center; here it’s Thomas Babington “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman), graduate student in history and. . .well, if you haven’t seen it (even if you’ve heard of its most famous scene) I don’t want to spoil it, because among the many smart pleasures of Marathon Man is its first act, a solid 45 minutes where Goldman and Schlesinger introduce us to characters and events without hinting at how they might all come together. Goldman adapts his own novel and does it well, a rare thing in self-adaptation, sacrificing his voice for imagery and story; and despite his complaints about how the ending was rewritten by the studio (Robert Towne was the hired gun here; he usually was), it’s more faithful than he thinks: Babe’s status as an innocent remains unchanged from start to finish, which keeps the movie and his performance out of the rank of Straw Dogs. When the characters start to converge in the second act, we also get to see how good the performances are across the board; the body languages of Hoffman, Roy Scheider, and William Devane (who had just played John F. Kennedy and here plays Kemper Boyd, more or less) make two major revelations about the relationships justified.
It’s Olivier, with not much more screen time than Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, who dominates it all. He transforms so completely and so physically between roles that every character seems to occupy a new body. Here he’s unquestionably an old man (Olivier had cancer during shooting and was sure he would die), tired, but as sure of himself and as secure in his evil as James Cromwell’s Dudley Smith. Without anything overt (and oh my yes, Olivier could deliver a honey-glazed ham of a performance when he felt like it), with only his stances and inflections, he conveys a sense of evil that stretches through decades, backwards and forwards–and the latter is the wellspring of Marathon Man‘s paranoia. Olivier’s Szell feels like a figure out of Ron Kershaw’s two-volume Hitler biography, Hubris/Nemesis, but taken past what we were told was the end of the war, less a person than the embodiment of a historical force, the evil that was never defeated because it wasn’t in the interest of the institutions to defeat it.
Marathon Man streams free on Amazon Prime through midnight tomorrow.