"Is it safe?"
Three of the most maddening words in cinema history. I think that what makes them so effectively terrifying and what makes Marathon Man work for most of its running time is the fact that the audience is kept in the dark along with the main character. For an iconic scene such as that to work, the suspense comes from the viewer having no clue what anyone's talking about, and the scene preceding the way that it does with no answers coming. It's a masterful scene, smack dab in the middle of a movie that works really well for about an hour and a half, and then becomes a tad ridiculous, but I'll get to that.
Dustin Hoffman plays Babe Levy, a graduate student at Columbia writing a dissertation that aims to clear his father's name from its tarnished reputation received during the Joseph McCarthy era. Babe's story is juxtaposed with that of his brother Doc (Roy Scheider, a guy who's career in the 70s is probably second only to John Cazale's) who is involved in some nefarious dealings overseas. As I mentioned earlier, the most effective thing about the way the story is told is that the film very deliberately withholds crucial information from you. It manages to build suspense out of the unknown, which is a pretty rare commodity in a thriller. Bits of information trickle out involving diamonds, covert government agencies & Nazis, but the pieces to the puzzle don't come together until the second half of the film.
Doc pays a visit to his brother after a pretty serious attempt on his life in France, and his behavior during the visit is every ounce that of a paranoid individual. He goes to meet with a shady character by the name of Szell (Laurence Olivier) who's brother gave Doc a canister full of diamonds in the beginning of the film before being blown up in a car accident. Szell stabs Doc, who manages to make his way back to Babe's apartment before dying, which now places Babe in the precarious position of a man who may have information, but as we saw, wasn't explicitly given any.
Nevertheless, Babe is paid a visit by a man named Janeway (William Devane) who tells Babe that Doc was working for a secret government agency called The Division, and Janeway wants Babe's permission to use him as bait when the men who killed his brother inevitably come looking for him. Needless to say, not everyone is who they seem, and the seeds of this conspiracy to get to Babe were sown before he was ever even aware that something was amiss.
William Goldman wrote the book on which the film is based, and also scripted the film, although the ending is markedly different from the ending to his novel, as the notoriously difficult Hoffman demanded it be changed, and even worked with Robert Towne to craft the new ending, along with producer Robert Evans. I haven't read the book, but I've read how the book ends, and I don't know that it's that much of an improvement over what transpires in the film.
What I guess I'm getting at is that if you look at another Dustin Hoffman film, Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, that was a film that was all about what a peaceful man was capable of doing if pushed to his breaking point. This film treads much of that same ground in its climax, and totally cops out on the ending. Peckinpah had the common sense to know that once you cross the line, there's no going back, but this new ending for the film leaves a lot of loose ends that are going to be interestingly tied together by whomever ends up with the job of investigating the various murders that occur in the last ten minutes of this film.
John Schlesinger didn't make a lot of very good movies after this one. The Falcon & The Snowman and Yanks are decent movies, but nothing really compares to the run he went on from Midnight Cowboy to Sunday Bloody Sunday to Day of the Locust and then this film. I didn't love this movie, even though I really wanted to, but I can't dismiss it either because three-fourths of it is brilliant. The cinematography by Conrad Hall is fantastic (what else would you expect from probably the greatest cameraman that ever lived), particularly the flashback sequences, and the way those are framed and cut into the film.
My one other grievance that I feel the need to air, lands with the marketing team that put together the dvd for this film. The cover is a big, bold image of Dustin Hoffman pointing a gun right at you. I've brought this up before, not here necessarily, but it's like the old French Connection poster that had Popeye Doyle shooting Nicoli at the top of the steps, or the Planet of the Apes dvd cover with Taylor kneeling in front of the Statue of Liberty. Don't these marketing people give a shit about the content of the films they're marketing? I guess not, it's just something that gets my goat. Anyway, Marathon Man is pretty decent. You should watch it.