On a street in New York City, an elderly German man is having car trouble as he travels through a largely Jewish district, causing an equally elderly driver who is forced to stop behind him quite some degree of frustration. The American starts yelling at him until the German leans out and in his own language hisses "Jew" at him: if the American was mad before now he is really furious, and as the German gets his car going he starts chasing him down the street, smashing into his car and shouting. What neither notice until it is too late is that there is an oil tanker pulling out ahead, and they both smash into it, causing an explosion that kills them. In nearby Central Park, jogger Babe (Dustin Hoffman) looks on bewildered...
Even if the rest of Marathon Man was a load of rubbish, which it isn't, that opening ten minutes would constitute a masterclass of how to grab the audience's attention and keep it throughout what emerges as a seriously obscure plot. Not only are there the two old gents meeting their violent demise, but after "Babe" Levy runs on, a jogger passes him, notices him checking his watch and mildly taunts, "Behind schedule?", leading Babe to get into a race with him, illiustrating that he's not the type to roll over and let life pass him by in spite of his weaknesses. To top it all, once he reaches his apartment he is lampooned by the local toughs who call him The Creep (listen for one guy cooing "Creeepy! Creeeeepy!"), leaving his underdog credentials assured.
After that, it is easy to literally lose the plot, and there are plenty of people who would rank this as one of the best thrillers of the seventies while still being unsure on a few important aspects of the story that screenwriter William Goldman, adapting his own novel, failed to make crystal clear. Indeed, for the first half barely anything is explained and we're reduced to dutifully tagging along after the actors in the hope that at some point one of them will reveal all. What we do know is that Babe's brother Doc (Roy Scheider) is like an American James Bond character who knows all the best wines and hotels, yet also knows how to save himself from an assassin looming up behind him.
So someone is out to kill Doc, but even after the film is over, we're not told exactly why, especially since after a while it transpires that he was in league to some extent with the bad guys. Still, we do know that Doc is on our side, as he is Babe's brother after all, and he does act heroically when people start dying around him in Europe and he flies home to meet a certain German chap called Szell (Laurence Olivier, frail but superb). That's not all Szell is known as, because among Holocaust survivors he was the Josef Mengele-alike White Angel, so called for his distinctive hair, and he put many Jews to death in the concentration camps, reaping the dubious rewards of pretending to save the richer victims while fleecing them in return.
One of the most famous scenes has Babe, in shock after recent developments have put him straight in the firing line amongst these shady characters, is kidnapped and tortured by Szell, who is a dentist by trade. Goldman knew how to push the buttons of unease - a Nazi dentist! - but the villain's repeated line "Is it safe?" has burrowed into the minds of everyone who has seen this, and Hoffman goes all out in his portrayal of a man brought to the end of his tether. This is important because although there would be few who would not want to have seen the Nazis punished in real life, it bolsters the case for going after the fictional bad guys in Marathon Man, and this being the decade where paranoia stepped up to the mark in its thrillers, Babe is left with no one to trust. As a series of expertly crafted sequences, scene by scene this was rarely bettered, which is a shame that as a whole it remains difficult to fathom; luckily, those worries only occur after the film is over. Music by Michael Small.