Marathon Man may feature a lot of running, but it’s no sports movie. Over the first hour of John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man, based on a novel by William Goldman, a whole lot of groundwork is laid and it’s really not clear how any of it relates. There’s a ton of stuff happening – half a spy thriller, half a romantic love story – and it’s bewildering to watch, even as Schlesinger masterfully controls the tone of events. Then, out of nowhere, the film shifts into high gear, and things rapidly get out of control.

As the film opens, we see a series of seemingly unconnected events: Two elderly men get into a traffic accident that results in a gas explosion. A secret agent type, Doc, played by Roy Scheider survives a series of assassination attempts. A young Ph.D candidate, Babe, played by Dustin Hoffman, who runs a lot, meets a Swiss girl and they begin to date. How does it relate? I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen this film (admittedly a 40-year-old film should be exempt from any spoiler concerns), but suffice to say that it does in fact all connect.

What follows is an hour of some of the most tense filmmaking I can recall, including a torture scene that will stick so firmly in the viewer’s memory that they may avoid the dentist’s office for years to come. The actors here are used quite effectively – particularly Olivier, legend that he was and is – and Schlesinger has a good grasp of what violence to show and what violence can be merely implied.

Timed as it was in the 1970s, a mere 30 years after the end of Nazi Germany, there’s certainly something to be said for how this movie functions as a tale of the lasting impact of the final solution. Made today, this is a film that would certainly require some updating. But as it is, Marathon Man remains a wholly effective film, difficult at times to watch, but always sure of the effect it is having on its viewer.

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