Sunday, December 21, 2014

Marathon Man

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

The making of this film has an anecdotal story attached to it. Laurence Olivier apparently chastised Dustin Hoffman for his zealous devotion to "the method." The British legend told Hoffman that instead of mimicking exhaustion by staying up all night, he should just "try acting."

Both actors are quite good here, using their respective techniques. Olivier’s Nazi dentist is actually quite restrained, emanating menace by just repeating the words "is it safe?" to the restrained Hoffman over and over in a subdued tone, referring to the diamond stash he exploited from Jewish prisoners. This sociopath is not interested in the safety of people, only his precious stones. If you don't like going to the dentist, definitely don't watch this movie close to an office visit. 

Which brings us to an interesting motif in the film. Olivier was a torturer/experimenter at a WWII concentration camp. But the medical axiom "to do no harm" is alien to this health care practitioner. But, Hoffman's brother (Roy Scheider) is ironically called "Doc," since he is a spy who collaborates with Olivier, delivering the diamonds from the dentist's safe deposit box in Manhattan by way of the ex-Nazi's brother. The German brother is killed in a car accident, causing Olivier to come out of hiding in South America to access the diamonds himself. Scheider says to Hoffman that he should forget about the past.  Obviously he has, letting go of his Jewish background to do business with the Nazi.  Hoffman's character is doing his doctoral thesis on the effect of McCarthyism and how it destroyed his father, so he is very much aware of the past. This movie is not a simple story of good brothers versus bad ones.

Outside of Hoffman's character, the others are not what they seem on the outside. Olivier looks like a harmless old man, but he has a spring blade dagger attached to his arm under his coat, slashing away at anyone who tries to expose him. He wanders around the jewelry section of Manhattan where almost all of the Jews are unaware of the Nazi killer from their past. In that district he ironically tries to determine the price of the diamonds he took from the Jews he threatened in the war. Scheider is supposed to be a businessman, but really is a spy who is a Jew associated with a Nazi and a spy network that should be benevolent, but isn't. William Devane's character as Scheider's boss pretends to want to help Hoffman, but double-crosses him. The girl who becomes Hoffman romantic interest is also working for the bad guys.

In the climactic scene between Hoffman and Olivier, the Nazi accuses the former of being weak, like the rest of his family. But Hoffman is anything but weak. He is a marathon runner who says early on that you forget about the pain while striving toward the finish. Even though Olivier has caused him excruciating agony by drilling into his teeth, Hoffman throws away the pain killing essence of cloves.  He does not want to be numbed into passivity, but lets the pain keep him sharp. He is the one who out of all of the characters survives in the end and triumphs.

Olivier interestingly played a character on the other side of the spectrum in The Boys from Brazil. In that film he was a Jewish Nazi-hunter.

What are your favorite Olivier and Hoffman roles?

Next week’s movie is The Wild One.

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