Friday, September 16, 2016

Running on Empty with Marathon Man

The story of The Graduate opens with naïve young Benjamin Braddock on his first day back from four years of college. At a lavish party thrown by his proud parents, the predatory Mrs. Robinson approaches Ben in his boyhood bedroom and lights a cigarette. When he can’t provide her with an ashtray, she smiled condescendingly and says, “Oh yes, I forgot. The track star doesn’t smoke.” 

In The Graduate, Hollywood newbie Dustin Hoffman revels in his role as a classic high-achiever, one who has earned top grades, presided over the debating club, served as managing editor of the campus newspaper, and won an impressive scholarship for graduate study. He is also the captain of the cross-country team, and so he can legitimately be called a track star. The film was a runaway hit, adored by audiences all over the world. Most critics too were impressed, although some quibbled that the tongue-tied young man whom Hoffman portrays is not entirely convincing as a scholar and (especially) an athlete. It’s true that the film’s several running scenes (like the famous one in which Ben races to the church to stop the wedding of his beloved) don’t validate our sense of Benjamin’s stellar athleticism. Still, all of us who bought into the character as a perfect embodiment of our own Sixties preoccupations were willing to accept Hoffman’s portrayal as the real deal.

Though I’ve spent several years of my life researching and writing about The Graduate, I didn’t realize until now that in the 1976 film  Marathon Man Hoffman  (almost 40 but still with a youthful look) plays another runner. His Thomas Babington (“Babe”) Levy, a graduate student in history at Columbia University, has been shaped by his father’s disgrace in the McCarthy era. Though he’s fond of his older brother (Roy Scheider), he has no way of knowing about Scheider’s undercover political activities. As respite from his own academic obligations, Babe trains in New York’s Central Park to run marathons. And his long-distance running skills will come in handy when he is caught up in a mysterious plot involving Nazi fugitives, his brother’s double-agent henchman, and a whole lot of illegally acquired diamonds.

William Goldman, the famous Hollywood screenwriting guru, wrote the screenplay for Marathon Man, adapting his own most commercial novel. I’ve read that he was inspired by the idea of situating Nazis in an intensely Jewish city like New York. The director was another top-of-the-line Hollywood talent, John Schlesinger, not many years removed from directing Hoffman on the streets of New York in Midnight Cowboy. Conrad Hall’s cinematography puts us where the action is (the film made pioneering use of the Steadicam for its chase scenes). And the #1 villain, a sadistic former Nazi dentist, is played by none other that Laurence Olivier, almost 70 and in frail health, but still able to wield a dental drill like nobody’s business. “Is it safe?” he asks, hovering over a terrified Hoffman. Clearly, in his skilled hands no one is really safe. And on the heels of this film, whole generations have been reluctant to schedule their dental checkups.

I enjoyed this thriller until just past the midpoint, when I realized the plot made very little sense. That’s what happens, I believe, when a novel stuffed full of twists and turns is condensed into a two-hour film. Something’s got to give, and it’s usually plot logic. Though Marathon Man was highly popular, it only nabbed one Oscar nomination, for Olivier. But Hoffman—looking for a father figure—found in the elderly English actor a marathon man to admire and emulate.

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