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Episode 76: MARATHON MAN

  

74 members have voted

  1. 1. Is it safe for The Canon?

    • It's so safe. You wouldn't believe how safe it is.
      38
    • it's very dangerous. It's not safe at all.
      36


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Nazis! Spies! Diamonds! Vengeance! Dental torture! A buff Dustin Hoffman! MARATHON MAN has it all... but does it have enough to get into The Canon?

 

Talk about it here.

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I'm voting yes on Marathon Man, but I feel like after the first time I saw the movie, I would have been more in line with Amy. Seeing it on my TV it didn't really blow me away, and just didn't work for me. But last summer I got to see it on the big screen with a packed audience, and for some reason it all clicked for me, and I loved it. It's so tense, frightening, and well paced, and something about seeing it with people really made that come out for me. Yeah, Babe is still a fairly dull character, but there was something magical about seeing the dentist scene on the big screen that really made it all come together for me. And that scene with Olivier wandering around the diamon district while that woman screams in horror that her own personal devil may be escaping yet again? Harrowing. And checking it out again this weekend on my TV kept some of that magic for me, and led me to vote yes on the Canon.

 

Side note, the novel is really good as well, but I wouldn't recommend reading it soon after seeing the movie, because they're so similar the novel loses some of it's power.

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TL;DR I agree with Amy and voted no.

 

I’d never watched this film before last week, when I watched it for the podcast. It was fine to watch and it worked well enough, but I’ll probably never purposefully seek it out for another viewing.

 

There were a few very good scenes in the movie, but they weren’t tied together well. Devin brought up a very good quote from Ebert’s review about this: “They do not add up to a plot that holds water. If holes in plots bother you, "Marathon Man" will be maddening.”

 

I didn’t care for Hoffman’s Babe, who was an utterly passive protagonist who drifted through the movie reacting irrationally as events transpired. I also particularly disliked the final showdown where the villain tumbles down the stairs and is impaled on his own knife. Hearing about how it was changed from the source material made me like it even less.

 

While I appreciate Devin’s stance at the end of the podcast, is the purpose of the Canon merely to recognize movies that are solid? If the purpose of the Canon podcast is to cultivate a list of important and influential films, I don’t see how this gets in.

 

Marathon Man isn’t the best example of the work of anyone involved and doesn’t seem to be particularly innovative artistically, technically, or socially. One of the reasons I like The Canon is Devin & Amy usually explain why important films are meaningful and I just didn’t get that from watching Marathon Man or listening to the accompanying podcast. Looking at a list of films released in 1976, there are many excellent candidates for The Canon but I just don't see it here.

 

Anyhow, I enjoyed this week's episode and look forward to next week's coverage of Se7en.

 

PS- As far as the generational divide goes, I’m in my 30s and do not recall ever hearing the “Is it safe?” exchange as a pop culture reference.

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Swear to God, before I started listening to this episode I figured both Devin and Amy would love the movie. I'm shocked that not only does Amy not like it, but that she doesn't like Dustin Hoffman. Simply amazed.

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I'm voting no, too.

 

As much as I like many other films written by William Goldman, this one never clicked with me. I think this movie is saved by the acting, especially Laurence Olivier's. He is so good and so menacing as Szell that he add believability where there should be none. He wasn't even supposed to be there in the first place, and suddenly, everyone is in his pocket. I didn't like all the scenes with the girlfriend. This is a case where the good does outweigh the bad (it's a good movie overall), but it can't completely make up for it.

 

Marathon Man was a fantastic candidate for The Canon, because it was, for me, right there on the line. Even if the movie doesn't make it in, it doesn't mean that you should go towards safer choices.

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One of my favorite thrillers, and one of Hoffman's best performances. Astounding how the film makes what could be a very silly concept into something tense and scary!

 

Really hoping it gets into the canon.

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Easy no. I think Marathon Man is a pretty good 70s paranoia thriller with a fun performance by Olivier. But I think it's more like The Parallax View in its good not greatness. If you're a fan of thrillers from the 70s, it's worth checking out, but if we're talking general Canon, it really doesn't belong.

 

That said, this makes a fun double feature with The Boys From Brazil where you can watch Olivier first play an evil Nazi and then hunt an evil Nazi.

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I think Amy summed it up when she said that she finished the movie and didn't really feel like she had much to say about it. PhilH above, too.

 

Where I get Devin's side is that Marathon Man is a movie with a great deal of craft, and I think Devin is getting a lot more from the craft then me. He's right on the money that this movie establishes a world, and that usually sends me over the top for any movie. When a film can put you in a vital setting where you feel the world is much larger then the frame of the shot, it's transcendent. And I think the movie's disaffected grimy 70s New York is nearly transcendent. Nearly.

 

The film's craft gives us a lot of evocative details. I didn't notice that the water treatment plant had its own shot near the top of the film, and it didn't even half to. For me, when Babe apprehends Szell the film cuts to this ornate looking building with an open door, and before you can start to wonder what this place is and why this place is our next setting, a jogger runs by, and you understand in an instant that this is just a place that Babe passes every day, and he's just moving within his limited comfort zone. The film has a lot of interesting details and deviations from the norm.

 

However, I do feel that this movie is feast or famine. I think it has a handful of great scenes, but I don't think it excuses that the movie is a famine in between to a Canon-worthy level. I love the opening scene with the two old men killing each other in their road rage. I love every scene from Babe's abduction from his apartment through his true escape on the freeway. And I love the Szell-on-the-street sequence, and the climatic scene in the water treatment plant. Those scenes pack such tension. The opener in particular feels like a great Hitchcock sequence where the movie savors the machinations of Szell's brother, and thrills in keeping the viewer in the dark as to what it all means. But the movie really shines when the movie is turned over to Olivier near the finale. The hosts mentioned the street scene, but I also loved Szell going to the bank. The movie uses the tension of Szell's vulnerable position, but also takes a moment to see it wiped away when he finally sees his diamond fortune all together for the first time. Olivier is just a marvel, making a Nazi's joy as he witnesses his exploitation spoils infectious to the audience.

 

I think that many movies may be Canon-worthy is they have three great scenes, but this one is an example of why the whole movie needs to be considered. Intrigue carries the first act, but once it wears off the film is unbearably flat outside those scenes. I like Dustin Hoffman, but I shared Amy's reaction to his performance in this movie. I like that the movie made this unheroic weirdo the action star as a choice, but in practice I just didn't care about the guy. In fact I think that only Olivier really made his character vital on screen. The film didn't investment me in the non-Szell plot in the film. I didn't care for Babe, I didn't really care about Doc, and I couldn't stand the love interest or the stories that she was involved in. And everything about their father, from the groanworthy classroom scene with the "cool professor" to the pointless suicide flashbacks were plain bad. I enjoyed this movie tremendously in fits and starts, but it was interminable in between those fits.

 

I had heard of this movie before, but I was shocked to hear Devin talk about the films cultural impact, particularly the "is it safe?" line. I may be in a bubble, but I don't think this movie's impact survived in any ways to the present day. I'm 26, was anyone around my age group familiar with any element of this film surviving in the culture?

 

In any case, this is another Lost Weekend situation to me. It's a fine film, but well short of great. But where I think Lost Weekend was consistently solid, I think this film contains some truly breathtaking wins spread across a field of huge losses. I can't vote it into the Canon.

 

Also, I just wanted to say that Brokeback Mountain was really terrific. I ran out of time to comment about it last week. That's a film with incredible dramatic depth and huge cultural impact, especially in my high school when it came out.

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The softest, most reluctant of yeses. I don't want small canon. Yeah, it's cool to discuss why some films matter. Some film are just beneficiaries to the influence and innovations of other films, and don't give back a ton. Marathon Man is this kind of film. I would also point to Jeremy Saulnier's films. They're not breaking new ground, but they're fucking dynamite. I think the film in question is good enough, even if I don't love it

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And I wanted to share a thought about the idea of the Big Canon vs. the Small Canon.

 

I personally don't see a point to a Big Canon in the grandest sense. If the Canon accepted films that were "good," or "solid," or "fine with a great element or two," I feel like the process would lose it's meaning. The Canon would come nearer to a pass/fail system, and that's pretty much Rotten Tomatoes. That's a covered area.

 

A movie doesn't have to be great to deserve praise and recognition, it's true, but the fun of voting in the Canon is about a deeper evaluation of the films among the fans, and that demands a certain bar for there to be any tension. Devin and Amy mainly nominate films that are obviously at least solid, with the occasional film that they both strongly dislike. In a Big Canon that means every film would likely get a easy pass until every tenth film got an easy fail. Occaisionally there's a Blade Runner, but it's hard to see a large Canon having much meaning or juice for the fans.

 

Devin often says that the rub for him is not about what gets voted in or out, but the discussion that the podcast creates. I agree fully, and I think that philosophy lends itself to a Canon that allows itself to be somewhat exclusive. A film can be recognized and praised by being discussed, even if it falls short of the Canon.

 

And most importantly, I don't think that anyone here wants a Small Canon in the sharpest sense either. I'm confident that the fans who listen, vote, and comment are here to express their affection for cinema. They're not in it to say "no," and I don't believe that anyone wants the Canon to just be a roundabout way to isolate the best 100 films or so. There's a middle ground.

 

An Inclusive Small Canon would vote in great films. Not all-time greats, but greats. I don't want to vote in every film that's "good," I want to celebrate exceptional film by voting them into the Canon. As Devin alluded, a place for all lower-case greats, not just "The Greats."

 

The most exclusive I'd ever consider making the Canon would be to exclude "garden-variety" greats. Some movies you watch, log as high quality, and forget forever. Maybe that's why I like the word "exceptional" to be my personal smell test for if a movie deserves the vote. Is a movie exceptional as a whole, or in one particular aspect to a degree that it distinguishes itself as Canon-wrthy? I think that's the model for Canon worthiness.

 

I just saw Green Room over the weekend. That's a great example of a movie that isn't an all-time great, but absolutely deserves a slot in the Canon for being just an exceptionally made suspense/thriller. Much in the way that Marathon Man isn't.

 

Sorry if it's annoying to have typed as much as I have today.

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Just a note: as much as anything else, this is a story about how we can be paralyzed by history. There's a reason Babe is a historian, named after a famous historian (Thomas Babington [hence "Babe"] Macaulay). And Babe is only able to act when he decides he can use history to make a judgment that he should kill Szell (which, as Amy notes, he doesn't quite do in the movie).

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While I am appalled by Amy's apparent indifference to the great Dustin Hoffman, I must vote a no for the canon. I've watched it a few times, and it hasn't stuck with me. Good performances, but overall doesn't add up to a great movie.

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I was born in 1969 and saw this film in the 1970's when I sneaked into a movie theater in Mexico City because I wanted to know why my dad, a dentist, loved it so much. It turns out he loved Olivier's performance. The phrase "Is it safe?" has always been a part of my general pop culture references, and one time when my dad was going to put in a filling he joked "is it safe?" as he moved toward me with his drill (but in his heavy Mexican accent, "ees eet seif?"). None of which is reason to vote it into the canon, but I just thought I'd share my issues with dentists as father figures - I once had a nightmare that Darth Vader was checking out my cavities.

 

I do agree with Devin that films with three of four great sequences are sometimes worthy of being considered. I do not think this is as good a paranoid conspiracy thriller as The Parallax View, and I might have preferred an episode on Polanski's "The Tenant" if we were doing a 1976 film, but I can't deny that this is a film that I've only watched three times in 38 years and it has always stayed with me because of scenes like the car chase where the German and the Jewish man play out their hatred in a road-rage incident, the fight scene in the hotel, the torture scene, the sequence where Babe escapes and they chase him with the car, and the scene where Szell is recognized in the diamond-district. These are all pretty memorable.

 

I think the cinematography by Conrad Hall is great, naturalistic, understated, and some of the shots support Devin's thesis that this is a film that links the past and future in thrillers. There's a shot in the bank vault at the beginning of the film that shows the banker putting the security deposit box in its place, then the camera tracks with his hand, which is holding the key as he gives it back to Szell's brother. It plays like a Hitchcock shot in its style and precision, like an older Hollywood film. And this is intercut with the shot of Babe running by the reservoir. Filmed with a steadicam - still a new invention at the time - the shot has the feel of a newer, grittier New York style of film. And the movie moves back and forth between these styles. For example, the garroting scene in the hotel feels very contemporary, with its handheld camera and brutal, quick editing, but the scene outside the opera where Roy Scheider tells his contact that they are compromised feels like a classic Hitchcock set-up.

 

Ultimately I voted yes because the film has stayed with me, and I think dentists need a film they can root for in the canon. This vote is for my dad.

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It's a no for me. I had never seen this before and while I don't regret seeing it, I don't think I'll find myself revisiting it. It's a good film but I don't think it was good enough-I agree that lowercase "great" films should be in the canon and are definitely worthy of discussion, but I can't get behind Marathon Man. I do like Dustin Hoffman a lot though, so will be looking forward to some of his other work hopefully popping up (particularly Midnight Cowboy or All the President's Men).

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(in short: i vote no)

 

Devin brought up the banality of evil which I think is an important element to any conspiracy story, the idea that most involved are just doing their jobs, and just doing your job is what ultimately leads to evil. 'All The President's Men' from the same year is a perfect example of this done right, most of the cogs in that machine are not there out of sympathy for the perpetrators of Watergate. But where between the contract killers and blade-armed Nazi spy-dentists is the banality here? The conspiracy is all around Babe, but not because it is made up of ordinary people - the kind who enable conspiracy, the kind who turned a blind eye to the holocaust - but because he's got some bad fuggin luck hanging around with jewel hungry Nazis and their associates. The banality of Szell and his co-conspirators lies only in the writing of their motivations.

 

I do actually like this film though. I just think it falls short of being more than a good thriller, ( tho even there I have have some of the same reservations as Amy ) and don't think it does anything significant enough for film history to warrant a place in The Canon . . . no it's not safe at all.

Edited by groovy-guy

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Soft no

 

You can see how influential it was on most modern thriller now- and yet its a great thriller in its own right- very tense scenes- and some incredibly innovative ideas in there as well- I love the scene where Olivier walks down a New York street with old jews recognising him- the paranoia for both protagonist and antagonist are there.

 

There are negatives about the film though- enough for me not to vote for it. The relationship with the french/german woman is so male-centric 70's, and I'm saddened to see that most of those problems still pop up now in modern films.

Dustin Hoffman always delivers a bizarre and yet disappointing performance. I have heard cynic non-cinephiles watch old films and complain about particular acting styles- the idea that to be a good performer back in the day would require being quiet for the whole film- and then shout wildly in one scene. I obviously don't believe that but Dustin's performances always portray that kind of quality to me.

Him and his garbage method acting.

 

This is very harsh, but I'm fine if most Hoffman films aren't in the Canon. Maybe All The President's Men.

 

Anyway- solid thriller, clearly influencial- but doesn't push past the threshold of decency into Canon-Worthiness.

 

 

PS regarding that Olivier story "Have you tried acting, young man?" I believe Hoffman has utilised the fact he is the only one left alive, and has changed that story for his own purposes. I have heard his excuse of partying, but I've also heard the excuse that he was stressed due to his divorce. It's gotta be he was doing his usual dickhead Method acting. I would be interested to hear what other Canon-Listeners believe as well.

 

PPS Just finished the episode- looks like I pre-emptively agreed with most of Amy's thoughts!

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I'm surprised how negative folks are on it now. I'd heard what a classic it was for years, and when I saw it was not disappointed. I can't think of many action/suspense films where Hoffman is the protagonist, and he pulls it off here, as does Olivier's villain. The reveal that Szell was in cahoots with the authorities by selling out his comrades is a great bit of 1970s cynicism (with some inspiration in Operation Paperclip) that I only just now realized I was probably ripping off in one of my own writings. I will agree that it would probably be better if Szell's death was deliberate rather than accidental.

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I somehow missed this movie until now and it hits many points I like. The slow burn of a good thriller takes its time with the plot. And the payoff is so well earned. The cinematic imagery is even misleading by suggesting themes or ideas that really mean nothing.

 

You all need to do a Hitchcock film one these episodes. Just throwing that out there.

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Big yes, it's a quintessential '70s thriller with one of the most iconic scenes in film history, for me it's a shoo-in for The Canon.

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I think the conspiracy thrillers of the 70s are a vital genre and one that best exemplifies that decade in both an anthropologic sense and in terms of film history, so it does need representation in the canon. If we're going to pick one, I definitely side with Marathon Man since it far surpasses the more popular entries in the genre like The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, All The President's Men, and Klute. I know its an unpopular opinion but thats how I feel. In fact, Amy's opinion on this movie would sum up my casual indifference to most of the films I listed. There's an austere sensibility behind the filmmaking of those other films that doesn't resonate with me in the same way that this film pops. The torture scene alone has stayed with this young Millennial since he first saw on TV when he was twelve.

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I'm giving it a yes vote. The aforementioned great scenes are incredible, and stick with you forever.

 

As for Devin's thoughts on "Is it safe?," as a teenager I thought this existed in a vacuum:

 

Boy, was I wrong.

 

To those speaking on how clueless Babe is, I'll be receiving a history degree from Columbia next week. Yeah, that's a bit of a brag. However, I want to let people know that most of the people I've had to interact with at that school lack a lot of common sense or ability to trust their gut. They've been so committed to academia for so long that they lose the ability to operate in normal social situations, much less an insane conspiracy plot. Therefore I think Hoffman's portrayal is accurate given the character's background.

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While this is a pretty good movie I have to vote No. The "Is it safe" line was familiar to me, and I was happy to now know where it came from. However, I have to agree with Amy. This is not Canon worthy.

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I vote no.

If you want a Hitchcockian spy thriller in The Canon, just nominate North by Northwest.

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Big big yes on this one. This is one of the most economical, beautiful structured thriller scripts ever written.

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