In the acting community, John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man is known as the source of a conversation between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman that supposedly occurred behind the scenes. Hoffman, the story goes, was explaining how he’d stayed up for three days straight in order to best convey his character’s exhaustion. Olivier then quipped “Why don’t you just try acting?” Hoffman has clarified that the story as told is somewhat misleading, but it’s still used to demonstrate the difference between Olivier’s classical style of acting and Hoffman’s method acting. Within Marathon Man, this difference contributes to the brilliant chemistry between its two stars.
Dr. Christian Szell (Olivier) is a truly despicable man, and Olivier conveys a grandiose menace that still seems entirely believable. Babe Levy (Hoffman) is meant to be a much more relatable character, and Hoffman’s commitment to the Method allows him to psychologically realize the experience of an ordinary man caught up in terrifying circumstances and to relate this to the audience. Dr. Szell is an historical figure to be studied, and Babe, the aspiring historian, provides the eyes through which audiences can study him. As a PhD candidate in history, Babe studies the role of tyranny in American political life, examining the tyrannical actions of Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph McCarthy. Each of these men, of course, targeted different groups using different methods, all of which Babe places under the umbrella of “tyranny.” We can assume that his thesis will tie these seemingly disparate circumstances and actions together, creating a unified narrative of American tyranny. This work is mirrored by the film itself, as its first half moves between different groups of characters with no obvious relation. Doc (Roy Schneider) conducts a series of clandestine operations in Paris, narrowly escaping several attempts on his life. Two elderly men rage through the roads of New York before dying spectacularly. Dr. Szell disguises himself and prepares to leave his dental practice in Uruguay. And in the meantime, Babe is studying history, training for a marathon, and wooing Swiss student Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller). The lack of clear connections between the stories is frustrating, and the lack of subtitles for Spanish, French, German, and Yiddish dialogue certainly doesn’t help there. The film presents a series of events in the lives of these characters, but it takes its time to provide any context in which to interpret them. While intentionally confusing, the film’s first half is still engaging, thanks to Schlesinger’s deftly crafted suspense. His sense of timing is impeccable. He optimizes the amount of time for the viewer to anticipate the various calamities, letting tension mount until just before the anticipation would become tedious. The score by Michael Small compliments the tension, founded on foreboding strings and woodwinds pierced by a high-pitched and dissonant piano motif that succeeds in being uncomfortable without becoming ugly. The violence depicted in these calamities was controversial when the film was initially released, and while it’s vivid and gruesome, it always serves a purpose, and it stops just short of being revolting. The infamous dental torture scene exemplifies this, as it doesn’t show the most graphic acts of torture on screen, but the camera is instead pointed at the lamp. While the sole bright light in the dark room is disarming, the details of Babe’s painful interrogation are conveyed only through his screams and the audience’s imaginations. The film is constantly teetering on edges; its genius lies in knowing exactly where to stop. This knowledge is useful throughout the film and especially crucial in the first half. About 50 minutes in, Babe and Doc are revealed to be brothers, and at that point the film’s narrative begins to shift from the episodic to linearity, doing the historian’s work, taking the facts and events established earlier and making connections between them, drawing a cohesive narrative from them.
There is great satisfaction in seeing all the pieces fall into place, and aspects of the first half that initially seemed tedious become appreciable when viewed as aspects of the whole. Doc Levy criticizes the historian’s work when he looks over his brother’s research about their father, a historian whose persecution by McCarthy drove him to alcoholism and suicide, chastising Babe for living in the past. Even Babe’s thesis adviser, Professor Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver), admonishes him to be objective, lest his relationship with his father bias his study. While Biesenthal correctly warns him not to try to fill his father’s shoes, it would be foolish of Babe to ignore that he, at very least, follows his father’s footsteps.
Absolute objectivity is impossible for historians, and indeed, undesirable, as it would reduce the historian’s work to that of an archivist. Historians must have bias, tempered by critical thought, in order to analyze historical events rather than simply acknowledging them. In Babe’s case, this bias comes from a feeling of personal connection to history. This is demonstrated in the film’s very first shots, as it cuts from black and white footage of Ethiopian athlete Abebe Bikila’s gold medal-winning run in the 1964 Olympic marathon in Tokyo to Babe’s training in New York a few years after Bikila’s death. Later, photos of Bikilia and Paavo Nurmi, the great Finnish runner who dominated Olympic track events in the 1920’s, can be seen in Babe’s apartment. In honoring the greats, Babe acknowledges that his own long-distance running hobby doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The study of history gives it a broader context, just as it gives context to his father’s suicide and the subsequent events of his life. He remembers the context of history when he runs, even when he runs from men seeking to kill him. Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, one of the most prominent Russian theologians of the 20th century, discussed history often. He saw the Church’s Tradition as her life, and taught that it can’t be understood apart from history. Holy Tradition, according to Bulgakov, isn’t a static deposit of ideas, but a chain connecting the past and the present. Christians must understand themselves as being links in this chain, connected to the work of those who preceded them and those who will come after them. Without using ecclesiastical language, Marathon Man nevertheless expresses the same fundamental truth about history.