cinema experiences laurence olivier

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

Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (12)

  1. That sounds like it must have been such an amazing experience, Kendra! Urgh, as if I wasn’t scared enough of going to the dentist’s, I was even worse after seeing that film. ‘That’ scene was horrific but Larry was SO good. Frighteningly good.

    1. It was fun! I was really sleepy though after working a long shift at another cinema! Larry really was good in the role. I think it’s a standout among a lot of crappy films he took part in during his older years

  2. Thanks for reviewing this – so long since I’ve seen it. I always enjoy Hoffman and Olivier, and I’d almost forgotten what a treat this movie is to see them together.

  3. I’ve been wanting to see this film for a while, and now I really want to.
    I can’t help but think of Dustin Hoffman at the Actor’s Studio and talking about working with Olivier. He teared up talking about him and made me cry too!

    1. You definitely should! I think it’s one of the stand out films of the 70s–or at least one of the ones that people are still talking about today. Dustin seems to be a really sensitive guy. I remember seeing him crying while talking about Tootsie, as well!

  4. Would you believe I saw Marathon Man for the first time when I was about 11 years old?! It chills me to this day! The scene in the jewellery shop where the concentration camp survivor recognises Szell scared me the most of all!! The history of the past filtering through to 1970s NYC.. where you would think you’d be free from Nazi threats!

    Wonderful film, Olivier is brilliant. And that Hoffman quote, “try acting” – priceless!

    1. Oh yes, the jewelry shop bit is crazy, as is the following moment when the old lady spots him across the street and then runs into traffic screaming his name!

  5. Larry’s performance in this film was brilliant. The dental scene made me cringe. Hoffman said Larry was watching a gardener one morning clipping roses and it gave him the inspiration how to play the dental scene. Larry also worried about hurting Dustin and kept asking him, “Am I hurting you, dear boy?” Dustin told him several times no, and at one point screamed and said to Larry “gotcha!” It was apparent they had a good time working together!

    1. Aww bless! Yeah, you can tell how much Dustin respected Larry. He got a bit teary-eyed when presenting the Cecil B. Demille Lifetime Achievement Award to Larry during the Golden Globes

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