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Cinema Experiences: Marathon Man

Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier on the set of Marathon Man

“Is it safe?” Mary Ellen Mark captures Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in a playful moment before the tense final scene on the set of John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man

Coinciding with renewed public interest in the Holocaust following the Cold War, and the race to bring WWII criminals to justice, 1970s Hollywood saw the reemergence of  the Nazi as the ultimate screen villain. Suddenly, many of moviedom’s pre-war male heartthrobs were donning the evil, masochistic mask of Hitler’s henchmen. Famous examples include Dirk Bogarde in The Night Porter (1974), Gregory Peck as real-life Joseph Mengele in The Boys from Brazil (1978) and, perhaps most famously, Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man (1976). I had the pleasure of viewing this last film at Screen on the Green in Angel, Islington a couple weekends ago as part of their Saturday late night flashback series.

Screen on the Green is part of an increasingly rare and dying breed of cinemas that still screen films in 35mm, and this is what my friend Anthony and I were treated to (along with wine, brownies and popcorn!) when we went to see John Schlesinger’s political thriller.

Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a Ph.D. student and marathon trainee who unwillingly becomes entangled in a complicated and violent web of government secrecy. The situation is triggered by a car accident in New York City that kills the brother of infamous Auschwitz dentist Christian Szell (Olivier), known to his Jewish victims as “The White Angel”. Szell’s brother had in his possession a Band-Aid box full of diamonds, and his death prompts Szell to leave South America, where he’d fled after the war, to safeguard the rest of his assets in New York.

Babe becomes involved with a secretive German student called Elsa (Marthe Keller) who seems to spell trouble from the get-go. They’re chased down and mugged by suspicious-looking goons in Central Park. Not long after, Babe’s brother Doc (Roy Scheider) is murdered by Szell, whose weapon of choice for literally cutting down anyone who he feels is a threat to his fortune is a metal fist-cuff containing a long switch blade. It turns out Doc was a CIA operative and Babe begins to realize that his brother was simultaneously hunting and helping Szell. Also, Elsa is in cahoots with the Nazis.

It gets worse. Much worse.

Doc’s death leads Szell and the other members of Doc’s special ops division to Babe, who they’re convinced is in on the diamond-smuggling plot. Szell wants to know whether his diamonds are “safe,” but instead of being diplomatic, Szell goes straight for what he did best: torture by dentistry. Babe knows nothing of Szell’s diamonds, but gets a good tooth-drilling anyway. He then outwits and outruns Szell’s men for a good couple of hours (hence the film’s title) before he comes face to face with his torturer; this time getting the upper hand.

Throughout his life, Laurence Olivier played a number of less-than-savoury characters, but Christian Szell remains one of the worst on the spectrum of good and evil. AFI included him on their list of 50 greatest movie villains in American cinema. Despite being seriously ill while making the film, Olivier’s performance won him a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and an Oscar nomination for the same category. Both well-deserved, considering it was by far one of the best screen performances he gave in the later part of his career. Hoffman cherished his experience working with Olivier, and still tells with fondness the famous anecdote about not sleeping for days in order to appear genuinely exhausted a la Lee Strasberg’s Method. When encountered by Olivier, the older thespian suggested he “try acting”.

I’d watched this film a couple times before on DVD and TV, but the 35mm print trumped any previous viewings by a long shot. It was as if the entire film had run through an orange-brown filter and it just screamed “1970s!” I love how cleaned-up digital prints are able to make old films seem as if they were made yesterday. But I think many film fans would agree that there’s something special about watching a film as it was originally meant to be seen.

Marathon Man is a bit long in running time, but definitely worth a watch for killer performances by Olivier (see what I did there?) and Hoffman. Beware, you may never want to step foot in the dentist’s office again.

Grade: A

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3 reasons why Wuthering Heights deserves special DVD and blu-ray treatment

Merle Oberon Laurence Olivier Wuthering Heights (1939)

The announcement last week that Warner Brothers had acquired the Samuel Goldwyn film library gives us classic film fans good reason to cheer. Goldwyn, whose name made up one third of the famous Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer conglomerate before he decided to fly solo with The Samuel Goldwyn Company, produced some of the most revered films of Hollywood’s golden era: The Best Years of Our Lives, The Pride of the Yankees, Guys and Dolls, and a title pertinent to readers of, Wuthering Heights.

Warner Brothers has a stellar reputation for bringing classic films to home audiences. Some films are lucky enough to get several clean-ups and re-releases. Once getting the green light for a DVD/blu-ray release, there are two avenues a classic title can travel down before hitting the shelves in an entertainment store near you. The first is the full shebang; a special edition, sometimes multi-disc DVD that is beautifully restored and packed with extras. This is the treatment that has been bestowed on major titles such as Gone with the WindCasablanca and Singin’ in the Rain. The other avenue is through the Warner Archive, which releases lesser-known titles but seldom includes any special features.

When I first heard about the Goldwyn acquisition, the title that immediately sprang to mind was William Wyler’s 1939 gem Wuthering Heights. Starring Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon and David Niven, this heartbreakingly beautiful film has been mentioned as one of those at the top of Warner Bros.’ to-be-released-on-DVD list. Here are three reasons why Wuthering Heights deserves the same restoration and special edition treatment given to Gone with the Wind and the other major titles listed above.

1. It was the apple of Goldwyn’s eye

In 2009, I was lucky enough to see Wuthering Heights on the big screen in Beverly Hills during the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ ode to 1939. During this event, AMPAS screened all 10 of the best picture nominees of 1939 in homage to Hollywood’s most glittering year. Most of the screenings included a guest speaker that regaled the audience with tales from the set and the historical significance of the film in question. For the Wuthering Heights screening, that special guest was Sam Goldwyn Jr., the very same person who has teamed up with Warner Bros. to negotiate this deal. Goldwyn told us that of all the films he produced during his long career as an independent mogul, Wuthering Heights was the one his father was most proud of. And for good reason…

2. It’s no ordinary film

Don’t let the fact that you currently have to import Wuthering Heights from South Korea if you want to own a DVD copy fool you into thinking this film isn’t important. Because it is. Wuthering Heights may not be the epic Technicolor spectacle that was Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, but it was highly acclaimed by critics and audiences. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), Best Original Score (Alfred Newman) and Best Picture. Gregg Toland, best known for his use of deep focus in Citizen Kane in 1941, snagged the Best Black and White Cinematography statue. It also beat out Gone with the Wind to receive the Best Picture of 1939 accolade from the New York Film Critics Circle.

And what of the film’s stars? Catherine Earnshaw was arguably the defining role of Merle Oberon’s career, and playing Heathcliff turned Laurence Olivier into the (talented) R-Patz of his day. When he went to New York after completing the film to star in No Time for Comedy on Broadway, he was literally mobbed by women who tore at his clothes. Vivien Leigh probably wasn’t too happy about that last bit. But aside from becoming the Idol of the Moment, Olivier learned to appreciate screen acting while working on this film. We can thank William Wyler for all of Olivier’s subsequent achievements in front of and behind the camera. The director had to bully a natural performance out of the reluctant and arrogant thespian, but the results are amazing. Many actors have since stepped into the role in various film and TV adaptations, but Olivier, with his dark, brooding vulnerability, remains the quintessential Heathcliff.

3. The vaults have secrets…

Before the 35mm reel started rolling that spring evening in 2009, we were treated to another surprise: colour home video footage taken on the set by Wyler himself. This footage, it was explained, is a small part of what is housed in the Wyler collection at AMPAS. That means there’s probably plenty more where that came from. AMPAS is one of the best institutions in the world for cataloguing cinematic artifacts–not just the films themselves, but the material generated around them–and they know the importance of preserving Hollywood film history. The amazing thing about LA is that all of these film institutions are located in the same general vicinity, so the people of Warner Bros. need not travel very far to find a chest of treasures to include on a DVD/blu-ray of Wuthering Heights.

The other day, I was talking with my good friend Mark in Hollywood via skype. We were discussing how, in the case of cinema (and history in general), absence does not make the heart grow fonder. It just makes things fade from memory. The subject of our discussion was Vivien Leigh, and how, despite a lot of new material becoming available in the 25 years since Hugo Vickers published his well-respected biography about the actress, her estate has been very reluctant to assist anyone wanting to lend a fresh perspective to Vivien’s story. Time has a habit of eroding and eventually erasing memory. If the discussion about Vivien Leigh isn’t kept up through various forms (respectful books, documentaries, etc.), she’ll be forgotten. Or, perhaps worse yet, the door will be left wide open for those who are out to make money through rumour and hearsay, until no one knows who Vivien really was or what she actually contributed to the history of cinema. Wuthering Heights is a lot like Vivien Leigh. It’s a genuine classic that’s been collecting dust in a studio vault for years. But Warner Bros. has a chance to bring it back into the spotlight for fans to really enjoy. Let’s hope they make the most of the opportunity.

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Laurence Olivier: Young Man with a Future

31 days of Vivien Leigh and Laurence OlivierI have a bunch of magazine and newspaper articles left over from my dissertation research, so I’ve decided to do “31 Days of the Oliviers.” Each day I will post a new article or blog post, ending with Vivien Leigh’s birthday on November 5. These articles (most of which have Vivien as the main subject) span the years 1937-1967 and come from both American and British sources. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I do!

{Day 6} Laurence Olivier’s return to Hollywood after a six year absence was greeted with enthusiasm by the American press. In their eyes, he was already an established, top actor, and was written about with respect. In this article from Stage magazine, author Katharine Best waxes poetic about Larry’s long road to fame, Wuthering Heights and No Time for Comedy.

Laurence Olivier: Young Man with a Future

by Katharine Best
Stage, March 15, 1939
Submitted to by Chris

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An Open Letter to Laurence Olivier

31 days of Vivien Leigh and Laurence OlivierI have a bunch of magazine and newspaper articles left over from my dissertation research, so I’ve decided to do “31 Days of the Oliviers.” Each day I will post a new article or blog post, ending with Vivien Leigh’s birthday on November 5. These articles (most of which have Vivien as the main subject) span the years 1937-1967 and come from both American and British sources. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I do!


Laurence Olivier’s snobishness toward filmmaking, particularly in the early years of his career, has been well documented. He always regarded theatre as the true actor’s medium but was not singular in his opinion. This was an attitude shared by many British thespians of his generation, including Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave and even Vivien Leigh. Movies were made to boost the bank account and gain wider recognition, but not for developing one’s craft. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Britian’s most popular film fan magazine would attempt to take him, and others of his kind by association, down a peg or two. This is exactly what Picturegoer did in 1937.

An Open Letter to Laurence Olivier

by The Editor
Picturegoer, 1937

Dear Laurence Olivier,

May we be permitted perform the pleasant task of paying a tribute to your performance in Fire Over England before proceeding to the real business on the agenda which may not be so pleasant?

Your success in the new British film, as a matter of fact, lends special point to the issue which we wish to raise here.

Frankly, it is disturbing to find a young actor whom we have some reason to regard as one of the White Hopes of the British screen, going into the old stage artist routine of being superior about “the films”.

“Given a suitable story,” we read in a recent interview, “and no need to sacrifice the stage work he prefers, Laurence Olivier will consent to act in one or two films a year.” The life of a film star, you add does not appeal to you because you wish to develop as an actor, and successes on the screen, except in rare cases like Laughton’s, means doing the same thing over and over again.

“In the theatre,” you point out, “an actor obeys the producer, but he is left alone on the stage.”

Whatever merits this theory may possess, originality is not one of them. It has for years been both the formula of the film failures and the heartcry of every stage actor who has ever considered his art something too delicate to be entrusted to the mechanical medium and too rare to be offered to movie audiences.

One is inclined to be doubtful of its validity now, but if we concede that there may be some justice in some of your complaints, we are still left wondering what a professionally ambitious artiste who can see no chance of development in films is doing in films at all.

We appreciate that your previous experience in pictures has not been an entirely happy one. In Hollywood you had the misfortune to be labelled as “the man who looks like Ronald Colman,” and none of your earlier British films could be called masterpieces.

We recall, incidentally, at Ealing during the production of Perfect Understanding:

The occasion has remained in our memory because our choice of day for a visit was not a particularly felicitous one. Gloria Swanson, who was already beginning to see the danger signals of failure facing her first British production, had just received a cable from America announcing the secure of a valuable collection of furniture over a debt dispute. Michael Farmer (then Mr. Gloria Swanson) was noticeably in the somewhat irritating throes of development into a film star, and Laurence Olivier was at the moment of our arrival the centre of one of those minor storms that blow up even in the best regulated studios.

The point at issue was not, as might be imagined from some of your later pronouncements on the kinema, a delicate question of artistic conscience, but, if we remember rightly, a pair of pants–a pair of short pants–for a Riviera scene, which, we gathered, failed to show off the stalwart Olivier frame adequately.

Perhaps we should be grateful that wardrobe men are also included in your recent enumeration of film hazards for stage actors who take themselves seriously.

Now we do not, for a moment, question the sincerity of your own attitude toward the films, and in any case, you are to be congratulated for speaking your mind so honestly.

Wha we do object to is that the British studios are already full of “spare time” stars. They like the big film money, of course, but they are always in a hurry to get the job over with and collect their pay envelope so that they can dash back to the West End.

And if, owing to the fact that they have given all their energy to their stage performance the night before, their work is not up to form–well, after all, it is only the movies, what does it matter?

One of the reasons why, although money has been poured into the studios, the late lamented bid to capture the world market for British films has failed, is that neither courage nor enthusiasm has been mixed with it.

Hollywood’s enthusiasm is tremendous, even to the point of obsession, but it makes for good films, and in the long run good films make your Laughtons.

The up and  coming young artistes one meets there are ambitious to make good in films. They have faith in films as a career, not merely as a stepping stone to personal to personal pyrotechnics, to the applause of hand-picked audiences of sycophants in the repertory theatres and an opportunity for picking up a little easy money.

While we respect your attitude we do not believe you are past praying for. We hope that Fire Over England may enable you to change it.

If, however the worst comes to worst, we can only wish you luck in your choice of “suitable stories” for the vehicles of your future rare appearances on the screen.

You may need it. That artistes are notoriously poor judges of dramatic material should at any rate be known to an actor who once selected the lead in Beau Geste in preference to the lead in Journey’s End.

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By the Sea

Sunset on Brighton Pier
Carnival, Brighton Pier

There have been many photos taken since the last blog post. A fellow Vivien Leigh fan, Zsazsa R., came to visit from Hungary and we went to all sorts of fun Viv and Larry-related places. More on that in the next post!

For the past few days, England has been experiencing an Indian Summer. With temperatures in the 80s for the first time since April, everyone including me has been outdoors soaking in the vitamin D. On Friday I spent the day in one of London’s largest and most beautiful Royal parks–Richmond! It was so nice to walk along the paths and see the giant deer laying in the grass and swans in the lake. Saturday, my friends Riikka, Katie, Sergio and I decided to get out of the city and spend the day at the beach. It turned out that all of London had the same brilliant idea because although we got to London Bridge bright and early, the train was so crowded we had to stand for the entire journey.

Due to the overwhelming amount of people flooding the sidewalks in Brighton, we took the train to another coastal town called Seaford, near Lewes. Seaford is a former port town that is now used as a seaside resort. The beaches are rocky and the sea, of course, is actually the English Channel, so there aren’t really waves. But the water is nice and blue-green. The nearby countryside is the location of the Seven Sisters–seven chalk cliffs similar to the White Cliffs of Dover. It also served as a filming location for the end scene in Joe Wright’s Atonement with James McAvoy and Kiera Knightley, which Sergio and I attempted to re-enact.

After a jaunt up the cliffs for some photos, we headed back to Brighton to catch a spectacular sunset on the pier. Brighton is a beautiful and lively city, and Laurence Olivier was a significant figure here in his post-Vivien Leigh life. After marrying Joan Plowright in 1961, Larry left London and settled in Brighton to raise a family. The new Oliviers lived in 4 Royal Crescent, two houses Larry had knocked together to make a bigger home. He continued to spend much of his time up in London (he often travelled on the Brighton Belle train) but many an older person living in Brighton still has fond memories of seeing him with his kids at the playground by the beach (no longer there, sadly). Apparently he was a regular at some of the pubs and restaurants on the waterfront, as well. In 1970, he was made a Life Peer and became Baron Olivier of Brighton.

Whenever I go to Sussex, I am immediately reminded of two brilliant novels: Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (I always throught Brighton Rock was rock candy in the American sense, but it’s actually just a giant candy cane) and Watership Down by Richard Adams. If you’re ever looking for a great read, I’d recommend either of these books. They both capture fascinating, albeit completely different, aspects of southern England.