WolfmanOz at the Movies #31

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 !

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtcwqoxIWa4cGW9hCESaUMg

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31 thoughts on “WolfmanOz at the Movies #31”

  1. I like the movie because it has a smart resourceful and ruthless protagonist.
    And one that knows he has to be smart because of his old age and limited resources.


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  2. One of the first film docos I saw contained a segment from Marathon Man about Hoffman running while being trailed by the then-new Steadicam. I hope the cameraman won a Oscar, or at least a medal or ribbon.

    I also ask “Is it safe”?


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  3. I thought Anthony Hopkins used Larry’s character as a basis for Hannibal Lecter. I’ve never cared much for Hoffman. Always a little man made good except Midnight Cowboy in which he was great. Comes across as smug usually. Maybe its just me. Royal Shakespeare has produced so many fine actors though I don’t think Hopkins came through that stream.


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  4. There is another good line near the end of the movie when a camp survivor recognises who Szell is. Szell eventually stabs him and the man falls down. Szell yells out ‘This man is having a heart attack…’ .


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  5. Tony Taylor says:
    July 28, 2022 at 9:01 am
    One of the first film docos I saw contained a segment from Marathon Man about Hoffman running while being trailed by the then-new Steadicam. I hope the cameraman won a Oscar, or at least a medal or ribbon.

    I also ask “Is it safe”?

    No it didn’t win an Oscar for its camerawork (it should have).

    It was the first mainstream movie to use the steadicam, which, IMO, it’s zenith was how it was used by Stanly Kubrick in The Shining.


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  6. Apart from the free range dentistry, my favourite scene is when Szell begins staggering around Manhattan after the debacle in the jewellers. Olivier’s realisation of an unrepentant nazi witnessing any number of “uppity Jews” freely going about their business, while his confusion, disorientation and rage rapidly builds, is acting at its finest.

    That said, it would be almost thirty years since I’ve seen it. Might be time to catch it again, hopefully there’s a remastered version out.


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  7. Hoffman running while being trailed by the then-new Steadicam

    I was going mention the scenes of Hoffman running, they were also fantastically done.


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  8. Old School Conservative says:
    July 28, 2022 at 9:25 am
    Wikipedia tells us that the dental torture scenes that made it to screen were heavily cut.
    Thank heavens!

    Often showing less is more effective.

    Why I think this scene is so compelling is that ALL of us have been in the dentist’s chair and often have been apprehensive of what is about to happen or the procedure itself. This scene realises our worst nightmares.


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  9. Good Parenting – unscrewing the bathroom door on the outside while your offspring has their head in the toilet after a marathon session – thanks marathon man

    Oh the horror , the horror


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  10. The dentist scene was awful, it must have contributed to dentophobia around the world and led to billions of rotting teeth.

    I always like Hoffman. I loved A man Called Horse when I was a kid, but maybe its just and old cowboy movie now. But Straw Dogs was really good. That taught a few moral lessons. Never give up, fight against the mob.


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  11. Jannie – A Man Called Horse starred Richard Harris.

    I think you are referring to Little Big Man – a quite unusual and very good revisionist western with comedic overtones.


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  12. “…where he brilliantly conveys the cold evil nature of his character…”

    Another great “bad guy” actor – a role which most actors seem to not want to play – is John Travolta.
    He did a great job in both “Broken Arrow” and “The Punisher” as a bad guy, despite the very different personas of those bad guys.
    Any movie with him as the bad guy is worth a look, IMO.


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  13. Thanks Wolfman for getting us to remember these movies. Had a look at the Royal Shakespeare site, the list of exceptional actors goes on and on. I like how we may not particularly like an actor until seen in something they shine.


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  14. When I was a kid my dentist applied Oil of Cloves on one occasion. I said it was awful, he said it was magic stuff. For some reason I’ve never like the flavour of cloves then or since, even in Apple Pie.
    Good movie and worth revisiting.
    Wolfman, you might look again at Contact (Jodie Foster) which screened in our home theatre early this week. Also well worth seeing again. I don’t recall anyone bitching about Bill Clinton appearing in some of the “news coverage” sections of the film. Trump, I heard, was going to be photoshopped out of Home Alone.
    Currently showing here is Empire of the Sun, with an early appearance by John Malkovich.


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  15. Little Big Man included a homosexual Indian, something that Mad Magazine had some fun with in their satirical comic strip about that film.


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  16. AAARRRHHH

    Yes Wolfman, it was Little Big Man. My brain is a bit squiffed, its got something to do with forgetting stuff. Um, how did you know what I meant? Just like my wife.


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  17. Bill Goldman, the writer, authored an excellent book called Adventures in the Screen Trade.

    Well worth a read – very entertaining, plus lots of insights into how the ‘screen trade’ works at ground level.


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  18. johanna – Yes I’ve read William Goldman’s book, and, as you say, an excellent read.

    He was one of the true great screenwriters of American cinema.


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  19. Bar Beach Swimmer says:
    July 29, 2022 at 8:58 am
    I believe the longest use of it was for Russian Ark

    Now, that’s a great film.

    (Woolfie, I survived!)

    Now that’s a relief !


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  20. Of course Wolfman, elementary, as Holmes said: “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.


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