Is it safe? Gripping and propulsive, ‘Marathon Man’ is all that and then some
Updated: Feb 28
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
(1) Laurence Olivier plays Dr. Christian Szell, a Nazi war criminal who uses the tools of his trade to probe Columbia University doctoral student Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) for information. (2) An avid runner, Levy escapes by jumping off a New York City bridge exit ramp.
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4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray, 1976, R for violence, sexuality and nudity
Best extra: New commentary with film historians Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson
JOHN SCHLESINGER had already directed art-house staples like “Darling,” “Far From the Madding Crowd,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and won the Oscar for “Midnight Cowboy.” But he wanted to try his hand with a thriller, he says in “The Magic of Hollywood: Original Making of Marathon Man,” one of the archival features included on this Kino Lorber Studio Classics title.
Specifically, a thriller that played to his interests – character and detail.
To say that the stars lined up is an understatement. It was co-produced by Robert Evans (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “Love Story,” “The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part II”) and starred Dustin Hoffman, who was on a roll with “Straw Dogs,” “Papillon,” “Lenny” and “All the President’s Men,” Roy Scheider, red-hot following “The French Connection” and “Jaws,” and Laurence Olivier.
Hold on: Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “President’s Men”) adapted his best-selling novel and the great Conrad L. Hall, a three-time Oscar winner for “Road to Perdition,” “American Beauty” and “Butch Cassidy,” was behind the camera.
(1) Klaus Szell (Bene Dova) withdraws a batch of diamonds originally stolen by his brother from Jews killed at Auschwitz. He plans to send them to him in South America. (2) Levy runs around the Central Park Reservoir. (3&4) Klaus Szell gets involved in a road rage argument with another driver and both die after crashing into a fuel oil truck. (5&6) Arriving at his apartment after a run, Levy checks his time while the toughs across the street harass him.
The other major player is mid-’70s New York City, far removed from the family-friendly playground it is today. In a new commentary, film historians Steve Mitchell, who was living in NYC at the time, and Nathaniel Thompson say it “was kind of falling apart a little bit … but the city had a lot of character.” (Mitchell and Thompson shared similar observations in their commentary for Kino Lorber’s recent release of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.”)
And then there’s The Scene. Far be it from anyone here at High Def Watch to play spoiler, so let’s just say that if your dentist is a fan of “Marathon Man,” find a new one! (Kidding.)
Hoffman is Thomas “Babe” Levy, a budding marathoner who is pursuing his doctorate in history at Columbia University. He’s tortured by the suicide of his father, a victim of Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt, and rarely sees his older brother “Doc” (Scheider), who Babe thinks is a globe-trotting oil exec. All in all, life isn’t bad, especially after he strikes up a relationship with Elsa (Marthe Keller, “Bobby Deerfield”), who says she’s a doctoral student. She has a secret, too.
It all goes to hell, though, when the brother of a Nazi war criminal dies in a fiery car crash on the streets of Manhattan. He has the only other key to a safe deposit box and a stash of diamonds stolen by his brother, Dr. Christian Szell (Olivier). A dentist, he was known as “The White Angel” among the Jews at Auschwitz for his prominent white hair.
(1) William Devane plays Peter Janeway, who’s part of an unnamed U.S. agency that does the dirty work for the FBI and CIA. (2&3) The assassin Chen (James Wee Woo) tries to kill Babe’s brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), who works with Janeway. (4) Janeway checks on Doc at the hospital.
Szell comes out of hiding in Uruguay to get the diamonds, and along the way we find out that Doc isn’t in the oil business. He and his partner Janeway (William Devane, “Rolling Thunder”) are operatives in an unnamed government agency that operates outside the FBI and CIA. In this case, they go to Szell for the names of other war criminals then turn the other way. Szell suspects that Doc is planning to steal his diamonds and kills him. That leads Szell, and Janeway, to Babe.
The story takes all kinds of twists and turns and there is no shortage of loose ends, but that, in part, is why it’s so gripping: Like Babe, you’re right in the middle of it. Besides, what’s wrong with thinking for yourself? Too many movies tie up too neatly. Life isn’t like that.
“Marathon Man” (1.85: 1 aspect ratio) was remastered in HRD10/Dolby Vision from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, and while you want to say that it’s on par with other recent Kino Lorber titles like “Pelham,” “The Italian Job” (1969), “Nobody’s Fool” and “The Usual Suspects,” that just isn’t the case.
Exterior shots are first-rate, particularly the opening explosion that kills Szell’s brother. Colors are vivid and the detail pops even in the weave of the suits. It’s the dark sequences, and there are plenty of them, that are sometimes problematic. Shadows are mushy, not delineated, the heavy grain can be obtrusive, and in at least one scene, the picture washes out at the margins.
Given Kino Lorber’s track record, there’s no doubt that they and Paramount gave it their best shot, and if you check out the footage in the other archival feature, “Going the Distance: Remembering Marathon Man,” you can appreciate the strides that were made. The HDR10 peak brightness hits 1034 nits and averages 330 nits.
No problems with the 5.1 Surround or Lossless 2.0 Audio tracks. There’s plenty of room for the dialogue, gunfire and explosions, and Michael Small’s evocative score. Mitchell calls him the “go-to guy” for thrillers in the ’70s, and with “Klute,” “The Parallax View” and “Night Moves” to his credit, the point is well taken.
(1&2) Levy starts an affair with Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller), who says she’s also a doctoral candidate but is really hiding a secret. (3) Two of Szell’s men confront Levy and Elsa. (4&5) After confronting Szell, Doc is stabbed and dies in his brother’s apartment. (6) Levy takes a bath to remove the blood and remembers his father’s death.
The relaxed Mitchell-Thompson commentary is the only new one. If you queued up their track for “Pelham,” you may find yourself wishing that Mitchell, who was born and raised in NYC, would move on and talk more about what’s happening on screen. Still, you have to hand it to him: He knows the city inside out.
And we do learn that Al Pacino was considered for the role of Babe and Robert Shaw for Janeway, and that “Marathon Man” was one of the first films to use the Steadicam.
Evans, whose juicy 1994 autobiography “The Kids Stays in the Picture” was made into a juicy 2002 documentary, features prominently in “The Magic of Hollywood.” Boy, does he know how to spin a story. He also appears in “Going the Distance” along with Hoffman, Scheider, Devane and Keller. They have some good stories to tell, too.
Other extras include rehearsal footage, trailers, TV and radio spots and trailers for a slew of other movies.
(1-3) Levy has no idea what Szell means when he asks, in one of the most harrowing sequences ever, “Is it safe?” (4) Arriving with Elsa at a house in the country, Levy suspects that he’s being set up. (5&6) An elderly Jewish woman (Lotte Palfi Andor) recognizes Szell in Manhattan’s Diamond District and is struck by a taxi as she pursues him. (7) Szell came out of hiding to retrieve his haul of diamonds.