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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.78:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 77.01)
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • French: Dolby Digital Mono
  • Spanish: Dolby Digital Mono
  • Italian: Dolby Digital Mono
  Subtitles
    English, French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Greek, Portuguese, Croatian, Slovenian
  Extras
  • Additional footage - Rehearsal footage
  • Theatrical trailer
  • 2 Featurette - 1976 and 2001
  • Animated menus

Marathon Man

Paramount/Paramount . R4 . COLOR . 120 mins . M15+ . PAL

  Feature
Contract

The ability of movies to deliver a shock to the system (or, for that matter, the viewer’s sensibilities) has always been an evolving quantity. What shocks one generation is often pass-the-Horlicks material for the next. 1940s audiences recoiled in their seats when Clark Gable dared to say “damn”, 1960s audiences gasped at the first mainstream films to use full-frontal nudity, and 1970s audiences shivered and squirmed at the horrific, sadistic violence depicted in John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man.

Times have changed, of course. Movie characters routinely swear their heads off without the audience raising an eyebrow, with many TV shows and even PG-rated films occasionally scoring a choice f-word for, err, realism; meanwhile the makers of the South Park movie went for a world record swearing attempt, and all they got for their trouble was a lousy M rating. Nudity and sex is present and accounted for in a good percentage mainstream movies (and still gets the MPAA riled in America, presumably because they don’t get any), while on-screen ultra-violence is still played out in a movie like it’s in competition with last week’s entire top ten films in the body-count and gruesome-pain categories. We still complain about censorship, naturally - but overall, compared to the ‘70s (which at the time seemed perfectly liberated, thanks very much) we’ve got it good.

Marathon Man does not have the power to shock that it did 25 years ago; the “gruesome” violence that had so many running for the exits back then is almost television-tame now. Even the infamous dental torture scenes are somewhat anticlimactic to a modern eye; you keep wondering what Paul Verhoeven or David Fincher would do with the scene today, and it’s that thought which makes you squirm. But of course, this scene has one element that can’t be recreated today - the interplay between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman, which is perfectly chilling in its own right and remains so after all this time.

Marathon Man, based on a novel of the same name by William Goldman, who also wrote the screenplay (and who would later go on to script The Princess Bride!), is one of those typically ‘70s thrillers involving mucho political intrigue, mysterious offshoots of the CIA, Nazi war criminals and lots and lots of eager henchmen (or hired goons, if you prefer) who get to act as moving targets. It weaves a somewhat implausible tale of escaped Nazi evil-guy Christian Szell (Olivier, who’s terrific), those who may or may not be trying to stop him, and an innocent college student and part-time marathon runner who gets caught in the middle. Played by Hoffman, he’s called, believe it or not, Babe - which of course leads to much unintended amusement as the rest of the cast keep saying “hey babe” and suchlike. Babe’s brother Doc (who is not a dwarf, but instead is Roy Scheider) is no stranger to intrigue, but when he staggers into Babe’s apartment in a performance that’s a solid contender for Silliest Death Scene of the Decade, he drags the hapless Babe and his Swiss girlfriend Elsa into a web of rather nasty stuff.

Ultimately, though, not much actually happens; Schlesinger is very good at developing and building tension when he wants to (the scene where Hoffman tries to escape an intruder while trapped in the bathroom is a good example) but many of the scenes here seem to have been designed more to let Hoffman do his acting thang rather than to advance the plot in any useful direction. Sure, there’s a lot of talk about plots and pasts and double-crosses and secret identities, but when the whole thing’s set up with a seriously dumb car-chase sequence and concluded with a Hollywood-standard stand-off where we already know what the outcome will be, it really doesn’t amount to as much as you’d think. Soon, the entire plot starts leaking like a sieve, and no amount of clunkily-directed action scenes (it was, after all, Schlesinger’s first thriller) can change that.

Of course, this is all seen in the cold glow of 2002, a quarter century after the film was made. Many who saw Marathon Man back in 1976 would have far fonder memories of it, and would no doubt find more to connect with in the plot. For everyone else, well, there are far better ‘70s-vintage thrillers than this - but if you can stomach the silliness then there’s enough here (primarily Hoffman and Olivier’s performances) to make the two-hour journey worthwhile.

  Video
Contract

Freshly transferred to video for its 25th anniversary, Marathon Man looks better than it ever has on this DVD, though the film elements aren’t always in the best of shape. In many scenes you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a current movie, so good is the definition, colour and detail. But elsewhere there’s a fair amount of film grain and a distinct lack of contrast, giving some scenes - particularly darker ones - an almost washed-out look. Shadow detail was seriously lacking in these scenes, as it was in a sequence late in the film which is seriously underexposed and remains uncorrected in this video transfer. This is almost certainly due to the way the film was intentionally photographed, and it’s unlikely that fans of the film will be disappointed by this video transfer overall. The film source used was presumably an interpositive, and it comes complete with the infamous “cigarette burn” reel-change marks every 20 minutes or so (unlike old-style film transfers, though, this isn’t accompanied by a sudden burst of film damage and jump in the picture at the “splice point”!) though otherwise the print is very clean indeed.

The movie is presented at an aspect ratio that we measured as 1.74:1 - the odd ratio is due to the very, very slight “pillarboxing” of the image on the left and right sides of the picture, which won’t be seen by those using conventional TVs to view the disc. The opening and closing credits, though, are fully (and quite substantially) windowboxed, giving the actual film image in these sections an aspect ratio of 1.81:1, quite obviously to ensure that the credits, which run very close to the edge of frame, are not cut off by television overscan. Depending on what display you watch the disc on, you may see black bars down either or both sides. The fact that this was done implies that the main body of the film is slightly cropped at the sides to get to a 16:9 aspect ratio, rather than being “open-matte” - but that’s by no means certain. At no point in the movie does anything seem amiss with composition, so it really doesn’t matter either way…!

Stored on a dual-layered disc (the layer change is quick and painless, by the way), this is a near-flawlessly authored DVD that suffers from no problems at the compression end at all. Interestingly, the first ten minutes of the film are encoded at a substantially higher bitrate than the rest, but you won’t notice any difference while actually watching.

  Audio
Contract

Originally graced with a humble mono soundtrack, Marathon Man scores the Dolby Digital 5.1 remastering treatment for the DVD release. Don’t expect fireworks, though - this is essentially the mono dialogue and effects tracks given some occasional left-right panning, with the music score sourced from what are obviously recording studio master tapes. As a result, the music sounds extremely hi-fi, while the dialogue and effects have all the realism of a cricket broadcast on AM radio. Obviously the sheer lack of sound fidelity available in cinemas when this film was made led the audio team to be less than pristine about recording the location sound and effects tracks, and they both have the near-customary 1970s shrill high frequencies - something probably done to compensate for the really, really bad speakers in cinemas at the time.

Overall, though, it’s amazing what a difference a remastered music score can make to a film’s perceived atmosphere, and while it’s loaded with distorted, tinny dialogue, this actually sounds a lot better than we’re making it, err, sound. Just flick to one of the mono foreign-language tracks to remember just how bad mono optical film audio could be…!

Those expecting surround-and-subwoofer thrills, needless to say, are watching the wrong disc.

  Extras
Contract

A modest but nice collection of extras is provided here, along with a very nicely designed fully animated main menu screen. Some deleted scenes would have been nice - especially in light of the comments made by Robert Evans in the featurettes about how the film was previewed to audiences and then scenes were cut - but what’s here is excellent.

The Magic of Hollywood: A 20-minute making-of featurette produced at the time of the release of Marathon Man in 1976, this is notable for two main reasons. First, you get to giggle at the silly things producer and then Paramount studio boss Robert Evans deadpans straight to camera (Roy Scheider the “Bogart of the ‘70s”? Sure, Mr Evens, sure…!) And secondly, you get to see a rather charming moment between the cast and Laurence Olivier that is very revealing.

Going The Distance - Remembering Marathon Man: A 29-minute modern-day featurette (made in 2001) that sees the key cast (minus Olivier, of course) and others offering recollections of the making of the film, some of the comments spookily similar to those they made in the 25 year-old featurette. This one’s worth the effort, though, for William Goldman’s quietly scathing comments about his script’s ending being rewritten at the eleventh hour…!

Theatrical Trailer: A surprisingly fast-paced and well-edited trailer for its vintage, this is in pretty good shape (but the “Coming From Paramount” title at the start isn’t!) This is the only extra in 16:9 format.

Rehearsal Footage: Exactly what it says! With further recollections of the cast dividing the clips, this is a collection of material shot during the rehearsal process that varies from mildly interesting to fascinating (the interaction between Hoffman and a struggling-with-English Marthe Keller is the highlight). Don’t expect decent film quality, but if you’re interested in seeing the actors right at the beginning of their work on their characters, this will make for essential viewing.

  Overall  
Contract

A classic genre film that will be appreciated more by those who were there at the time, Marathon Man may not have completely stood the test of time but nevertheless boasts some fine performances from its lead actors and some very inspired scenes that keep the interest level up despite the often nonsensical plot.

Paramount’s DVD gives the film a new lease of life with a lovely transfer that allows it to be viewed in pristine detail - for better or for worse - and some terrific extra material that’s well worth spending time with.


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      And I quote...
    "...one of those typically ‘70s thrillers involving mucho political intrigue, mysterious offshoots of the CIA, Nazi war criminals and lots and lots of eager henchmen..."
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Sony DVP-NS300
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-AV1020
    • Speakers:
          Klipsch Tangent 500
    • Surrounds:
          Jamo
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          Monster s-video
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