One of the best thrillers of the 1970s finally gets a 4K UHD release. A nail-biting story, taut direction, and terrific performances from Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, and Roy Scheider help Marathon Man outrun most of its competitors, and Kino's new Dolby Vision master struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative thrusts us into the action like never before. Excellent audio (including the original mono track in DTS-HD MA for the first time) and a new commentary sweeten the deal. "Is it safe" to upgrade? You bet! Highly Recommended.
What Alfred Hitchcock did for showers in Psycho John Schlesinger does for dentists in Marathon Man. Whatever you do, don't watch this film the night before your next cleaning, especially if you harbor any dental phobias. The movie's signature sequences send shivers up even the most desensitized spines as they target with pinpoint accuracy one of our most common and deep-seated fears. Yet to its credit, this top-notch thriller that's also famous for the cryptic and very loaded three-word question "Is it safe?" is so much more than two frightening scenes of oral torture. A tense, intricate adaptation of William Goldman's bestselling novel, Marathon Man rivets our attention from start to finish with an absorbing story, masterful pacing, and excellent performances from a first-rate cast that includes Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, and William Devane. The film also stands as one of a handful of 1970s classics (Chinatown and All the President's Men among them) that feel as fresh and vibrant today as they surely did at the time of their original release.
Produced during the Cold War and on the heels of Watergate, Marathon Man is all about fear, suspicion, and paranoia and the strength required to overcome their crippling effects. It's no coincidence the film's title character, who compulsively trains for the ultimate test of human endurance, becomes the quintessential man on the run and must draw on every ounce of reserve in his compact frame to evade his pursuers. Much like a Hitchcock hero, Thomas "Babe" Levy (Hoffman) doesn't understand why he's being hunted and what information his captors hope to extract from him. He only knows he has to get away or he'll be killed.
Babe's father, a supposedly innocent victim of Senator Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch-hunt in the 1950s, committed suicide when Babe was a young boy, and his tragic death continues to haunt Babe, now a graduate student at Columbia University intent on clearing his dad's tarnished name. Babe runs, we presume, to escape his traumatic childhood memories and prove his personal worth, but when his brother Doc (Scheider), a "businessman" with shady global connections, comes to New York City for a visit, terror soon ensues as Babe becomes ensnared in a tangled web of events concerning Dr. Christian Szell (Olivier), a Nazi war criminal who's forced to come out of hiding to retrieve a coveted stash of precious diamonds.
Twists, of course, litter Goldman's tight screenplay, which expertly weaves thematic elements and character development into a suspenseful, action-packed story. Hoffman, for reasons of heritage, objected to the film's original scripted ending, which mirrored that of the novel, so Robert Towne was brought in at the last minute to construct a new denouement, which Goldman reportedly abhorred. The Towne ending possesses more of a grand Hollywood feel but is also supremely effective and quite memorable.
Espionage pictures are a dime a dozen, but the Nazi angle sets Marathon Man apart from its sister films, adding an emotionally charged element to the complex plot. In 1976, World War II was only a generation removed and its wounds were still fresh enough to provoke a visceral response, especially for those Jews directly impacted by the Holocaust. Goldman supposedly based Szell on the notorious real-life Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death," whose horrific human experiments at the Auschwitz concentration camp outraged the world and who was still at large and living in Paraguay at the time of the film's premiere. (Two years later, a similar - and inferior - movie, The Boys from Brazil, was released, in which Gregory Peck played Mengele and Olivier, in a reversal from his Marathon Man role, portrayed a Nazi hunter.) The quiet, methodical sadism Olivier brings to Szell is supremely chilling and his continual deadpan utterance of "Is it safe?" rings in the ears long after the movie ends. His finely etched performance justly earned the renowned thespian a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (the only Academy recognition the film received) and a Golden Globe award.
At the time, Schlesinger seemed like an odd choice to helm such a large-scale, pulsating thriller. Marathon Man marked a severe departure for the director, who made his mark crafting cerebral pictures like Midnight Cowboy and Sunday Bloody Sunday that emphasize the finer points of the human condition. Yet his inexperience with the genre never shows and he brings to the table essential sensitivities and an elegant visual sense that distinguish the film from others in its class. One might think Schlesinger would approach the material in a detached, even-tempered manner, but he throws caution to the wind, rarely taking his foot off the gas and relishing the story's explosive nature. A few well-timed breathers notwithstanding, Marathon Man zips along at a brisk clip, ironically resembling a sprinter.
Though a bit long in the tooth (pun intended) at age 38 to portray a student, Hoffman pulls it off, thanks to his boyish looks and diminutive stature, and handles the role's intense physical demands well. Those familiar with the actor's body of work will quickly recognize his tics and idiosyncrasies, but they don't get in the way of his performance, which brims with impressive raw power. Olivier's measured menace beautifully complements Hoffman's fear, and the underrated, always natural Scheider makes a striking impression as the suave, confident Doc. Swiss actress Marthe Keller, making her American debut, shines as Babe's mysterious girlfriend, and the square-jawed, grimacing Devane asserts himself well in a tough, uncompromising role.
So many thrillers are so utterly preposterous they possess little intrinsic value. Marathon Man, however, is that rare piece of popcorn entertainment that also cuts to the bone. Sure, it's violent and disturbing, but it's also one of Hollywood's finest suspense films - brilliantly plotted, stylishly photographed, well-acted, and populated with dimensional characters. Without question, Schlesinger's film goes the distance and continues to run strong almost four decades later. Even if it keeps you from darkening a dentist's door ever again, it's well worth seeing.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Marathon Man arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. A 1080p Blu-ray disc containing the film and its supplements is also included. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with Dolby Vision HDR and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. (A refashioned DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also included.) Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
I raved about Marathon Man's 2013 Blu-ray transfer from Warner Home Video, but Kino's brand new Dolby Vision HDR master struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative outclasses it. The 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer restores the movie's original grain structure and looks incredibly film-like. Though grain levels and softness fluctuate depending on shooting conditions and the amount of available light, the image aptly reflects the gritty 1970s style and faithfully honors the cinematography of three-time Oscar winner Conrad Hall. Clarity, contrast, and shadow delineation are excellent. You can see the contours of the water drops on Hoffman's face as he sits in the bathtub, the pockmarks on Scheider's nose, and the facets of the diamonds when Szell dumps them on the glass counter. The reflections in car windows and on Olivier's glasses are sharp and fine details in the fancy restaurant where Doc takes Babe and Elsa to dine are easy to discern. Though the urban settings don't exude much color, the bold yellows of a taxi cab, the red neon exterior of a building, and the verdant greens of Central Park and the jungle where Szell hides out before coming to New York benefit from Dolby Vision's enhanced color spectrum. Black levels are deep, the bright whites never bloom, flesh tones look natural and remain stable throughout, and no nicks, marks, or scratches dot the pristine source material. If you're a big fan of Marathon Man, an upgrade is definitely recommended.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 Blu-ray transfer is culled from the same source and looks quite good as well. Though not as vibrant or colorful as its 4K UHD counterpart, the overall image quality is very similar. The starkest contrasts come when this transfer is compared to Warner's 2013 Blu-ray transfer, which is considerably brighter and far less film-like. Part of the attraction of Marathon Man and much of its suspense stems from the eerie atmosphere of a deserted New York at night and the celluloid texture that emphasizes the city's grime. With its stronger black levels, palpable grain, and more natural appearance, Kino's transfer feels far more authentic. If you prefer a glossier, slicker Marathon Man, stick with the 2013 Blu-ray, but if you want a viewing experience that comes closest to replicating what it felt like to watch Marathon Man in a theater at the time of its 1976 release - and who doesn't? - Kino's disc is the way to go.
Kino includes the same DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that appears on the 2013 Blu-ray, but ups the ante a bit by offering the original mono track in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The 2013 Blu-ray included the mono track as well but in lossy Dolby Digital.
This time around I watched Marathon Man with its restored original 2.0 mono track and was very pleased with the results. Compared to the 5.1 mix (reviewed below), I could definitely sense a less expansive feel, slightly less fidelity, and a tad flatter tone, but the mono presentation is a solid track overall and handles the explosive effects and screechy bits of scoring quite well. Dialogue is a tad muted and not quite as well prioritized as I would have liked, but subtleties come through cleanly and no age-related imperfections disrupt the mood.
Much of what I wrote a decade ago about the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track also applies to this 2.0 track. Here's my review of the multi-channel mix:
"Vibrant, yet nuanced, this superior mix makes up in detail what it lacks in noticeable surround effects. From the opening sounds of Hoffman's steady, labored breathing on his daily run to the potent explosions that crop up throughout the film, this track runs the gamut of intensity and passes every test with flying colors. Ambient effects, such as rain, drift slightly into the rears, while subtleties like creaky floorboards add essential atmosphere to many scenes. Accents like the clinking and clanking of a pinball machine and zipper on a body bag are crisp and distinct, as is the gunfire and buzzing of Szell's deadly drill.
"Terrific dynamic range showcases the bright highs and weighty low-end tones that continually vie for prominence and not a hint of distortion ever creeps into the track. Strong bass frequencies pump up any sequence featuring firearms and dialogue is generally clear and comprehendible, though a few mumbled lines require a quick rewind to fully decipher all the words. Music is also extremely well presented, whether it's a selection of German lieder by Franz Schubert or Michael Small's intricate score, which is punctuated by jarring bursts of dissonant chords that enhance suspense while challenging the track's parameters.
"Any age-related defects, such as hiss, pops, and crackle, have been erased, leaving a clean, complex, but well-appointed track that perfectly complements every aspect of this fine film. Audio plays a big role in the full enjoyment of Marathon Man, and this superb 5.1 mix maximizes every sonic opportunity."
All the supplements from the 2013 Blu-ray have been ported over to this 4K UHD release. A decade ago, I bemoaned the lack of an audio commentary. Well, Kino saw the need for one, too, and includes a commentary track on this edition, as well as a collection of TV and radio spots. The commentary resides on both the 4K UHD and standard Blu-ray discs; the rest of the extras are exclusive to the Blu-ray.
NEW Audio Commentary - Film historians Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson sit down for a lively and engrossing commentary that largely focuses on the character of New York City. Mitchell is a New York City expert, and in addition to pointing out almost every single location, he provides some social history about the city and its various neighborhoods and talks about how the city has changed in the 45 years since the movie was shot. The two also identify a blink-and-you'll-miss-it bit by a young John Heard, point out some differences between the novel and film, break down the rewritten ending that departs drastically from the novel (Mitchell quotes screenwriter Goldman as calling the revised ending "shit"), and outline the serious health issues that plagued Olivier during shooting. In addition, they mention various plot holes, note that the movie's violence had to be toned down so Marathon Man could get an R rating, and discuss the careers of producer Robert Evans, director John Schlesinger, and composer Michael Small, among others. If you're a fan of the film, this is essential listening.
Vintage Featurette: "The Magic of Hollywood...Is the Magic of People" (SD, 21 minutes) – This 1976 making-of featurette takes a more intimate approach than similar pieces, focusing on the individuals responsible for creating Marathon Man. Producer Robert Evans, who was once an actor himself, makes a polished host and speaks enthusiastically about assembling the movie's international cast, engaging John Schlesinger to direct his first thriller, Hoffman's demanding physical regimen to prepare for his fleet-footed role, the vital role New York City plays in the film, and the differences between the acting styles of Hoffman and Olivier. Hoffman discusses working with Keller, who knew very little English before production commenced, and a stunt coordinator breaks down the car crash/explosion scene that occurs early in the picture. Plenty of behind-the-scenes footage enhances this thoughtful featurette, including Hoffman and Olivier hashing out a scene and Schlesinger setting up various shots. There's even an extended clip of a celebratory party for Olivier on his last day of shooting that features touching comments from both Olivier and Hoffman.
Featurette: "Going the Distance: Remembering Marathon Man" (SD, 29 minutes) – Produced 25 years after the film's premiere, this engrossing 2001 retrospective piece includes interviews with most of the driving forces behind the film's success - producer Robert Evans, writer William Goldman, and stars Dustin Hoffman, Roy Scheider, and Marthe Keller. All recall how they got involved with the project, share vivid memories of Laurence Olivier, and discuss working with director John Schlesinger. Anecdotes abound and there's not a dull one in the bunch. Interesting tidbits include Hoffman worrying he was too old (at age 38) to play a college boy; Olivier suffering from cancer and gout during shooting; and how the book's original ending was altered for the screen version, much to Goldman's dismay and disgust. Anyone who loves Marathon Man should definitely check out this absorbing and informative look back at one of Hollywood's finest thrillers.
Rehearsal Footage (SD, 21 minutes) – A trio of lengthy, semi-improvised scenes featuring Hoffman and Keller, Hoffman and Scheider, and all three actors together provide an insightful look at character development and the craft of acting. Interspersed between the scenes, both Keller and Scheider (in more recent interviews) analyze their on-screen roles and relationships and talk about the value of rehearsal during shooting. Some of the footage is pretty banged up and the scenes ramble a bit, but it's still fascinating to watch these actors at work and witness the creative process.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) – The film's original preview is not in great shape, but it's always a treat to see how a movie was marketed at the time of its release. A number of trailers for other Kino releases in the same vein as Marathon Man are also featured.
TV Spots (SD, 6 minutes) - A whopping 10 TV ads for the film are included.
Radio Spots (1 minute) - Two 30-second radio spots are included as well.
With a stellar cast, crackerjack story, and taut direction - not to mention one of the most agonizing and squirm-inducing scenes in film history - Marathon Man dazzled audiences in the 1970s and continues to do so today. John Schlesinger's spellbinding adaptation of William Goldman's bestselling novel grabs you from the opening frames and doesn't loosen its grip until the closing credits roll. A tale of espionage, divided loyalties, family scars, and long-delayed retribution, Marathon Man is far more than an innocent-man-on-the-run thriller, and the performances of Hoffman, Olivier, Scheider, Devane, and Keller elevate its reputation and help it eclipse most other movies in its class.
Kino's 4K UHD presentation with Dolby Vision HDR heightens the film's intensity and immediacy, the lossless original mono track is a plus, and a new audio commentary supplies context and perspective. Though 47 years old, Marathon Man hasn't lost its legs. It may not be safe, but it remains one of Hollywood's best thrillers, and this long-awaited 4K UHD release is well worth an upgrade. Highly Recommended.