Marathon Man is a very impressive movie. It combines the tonal grit of the mid-seventies with an immersive story to become a film that is still really effective all these years later. By taking the Hitchcock formula and placing it in a gloomy urban setting filled with graphic violence and characters with fluid loyalties, this movie would become a huge influence on several generations of suspense stories that would follow.
Part of what I admire about this movie is that it does a lot of things that are unconventional and that modern audiences wouldn’t tolerate, but these surprising choices are a big part of what makes the seventies such a special decade for film. It was a bold decade filled with staggering decisions when filmmakers were eager to challenge the status quo and established formulas. For example, it’s at least an hour into the film before we really have an understanding of what movie we’re watching. Director John Schlesinger (1969’s Midnight Cowboy) throws us right into the intrigue, and there are a bunch of scenes that don’t really seem to connect until later in the picture when we finally understand what we’re watching. Even then, we’re given everything we need to know in an exposition dump that lasts for about thirty seconds and isn’t repeated. If a viewer isn’t paying attention, they’re lost. This is a bold choice that requires patience and faith from the audience, but we are rewarded for giving both. There is no hand holding. This movie demands our attention in a way that feels rare and challenging even by seventies standards.
North by Northwest. Dustin Hoffman is the exact opposite of that model, but that’s all part of what makes this so riveting. I have kind of a hard time with Dustin Hoffman; there’s something about him that rubs me the wrong way, but this movie seems to be completely aware of this and addresses it in the film. Hoffman’s neighbors have nicknamed him “Creepy,” and by acknowledging Hoffman’s off-putting qualities, they’ve taken away one of the barriers of entry for the viewer. The actor was also nearly forty, so he looks more like a professor than a student, but somehow, remarkably, it works because the movie doesn’t pretend that he’s an attractive young man. This movie predicts our reservations and nullifies them so that we have nothing to take us out of the film.
Roy Scheider co-stars as Hoffman’s cooler older brother, a well-travelled man of mystery who fends off assassins in Paris, has clandestine meetings in the dark, and is a complete mystery to his younger sibling. Scheider fits more in line with who we expect to see in a seventies thriller, serving as our traditional action hero until the movie informs us that it has other plans. This was Scheider’s follow-up to the previous year’s blockbuster (the first blockbuster?) Jaws, and his casting was done intentionally to elicit a sort of heroic confidence from the audience that the movie eagerly subverts.
Marathon Man is an example of a slow burn, meaning that it’s a movie that takes its time by setting up all the pieces so that they can fall like dominoes. It’s tempting to think the film is decompressed and lethargic in the way it sets everything up, but retrospect shows that nothing we’ve seen is unnecessary. Hoffman’s romantic interludes with a foreign student, played by Marthe Keller (1977’s Bobby Deerfield) seem like a diversion, but they aren’t. Everything we invest in this movie is paid off.
American Beauty, and Road to Perdition.
Interstellar), and actor that I really love to watch. Marathon Man is a movie that fires on all cylinders and is a great example of what a thriller can accomplish.
I mentioned earlier that I think this film has influenced generations of suspense stories that have come after it. I see elements of Marathon Man in the Jason Bourne movies. David Fincher’s underrated thriller The Game seems to take a large number of its tricks from this film. I don’t think that Marathon Man invented any of the storytelling methods it employs—we can thank Hitchcock and the great noir films of the forties and fifties for that—but it does wrap it all up in a grimy aesthetic that feels less like Hollywood and more like our own urban backyard. In doing this, it places the tension at our own doorstep. Even all these years later, it remains a taut, squirm-inducing suspense masterpiece, and one of the best films from 1976.