Is it safe ?
A great anecdote in regards to the filming of Marathon Man, released in 1976, is the often quoted exchange between its two stars, Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier concerning their different approaches to acting.
Hoffman, a disciple of method acting, is purported to have prepared for a scene where his character had been awake for three days by doing the same himself. When told of this, Olivier suggested “Why don’t you just try acting ?”
Whether or not this was actually the case, it’s a great story, but 46 years after the film was first released, the movie still remains memorable as one of the best thrillers ever made.
Based on the novel of acclaimed screenwriter William Goldman (who also wrote the screenplay as well) it tells the story of Babe, a history graduate student (Hoffman) who becomes involved in the machinations of a Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Olivier) to retrieve stolen diamonds from a safe deposit box owned by Szell’s dead brother. Babe becomes unwittingly involved due to his brother Doc’s (Roy Scheider) dealings with Szell.
Marathon Man is one of those films that when you analyse it in detail after the event there are a number of plot holes, but taking Hitchcock’s view that a good thriller film should be able to put the audience’s brain under their seat, then this film succeeds brilliantly as it is a superbly crafted escapist entertainment that is made with relentless skill.
The film is also memorable for the scene where Szell tortures Babe by first probing a cavity in one of Babe’s teeth and later drilling into another tooth, without anesthetic, while repeatedly asking the question “Is it safe ?”
To this day, I always ask my dentist “Is it safe ?” before my regular half yearly check-up.
The film also doesn’t play it safe. Roy Scheider was now a big star after starring in Jaws the year before and it came as major shock when just half way through the movie Szell takes Doc by surprise and kills him with a blade concealed in his sleeve.
Olivier’s performance here is one of his finest that he ever gave in a film where he brilliantly conveys the cold evil nature of his character with intelligence and cunning.
Hoffman also shines as the confused Babe who, initially out of his depth, manages to improvise to ensure he can survive the mayhem he has been thrust into.
Marathon Man has always been a personal favourite of mine ever since I saw it when it was first released. Again, it’s a film we won’t see made today as the craft and skills it was made are no longer with us.
Enjoy . . . just don’t go to the dentist !
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