At times Marathon Man is an endurance test of the audience’s nerves as Schlesinger skillfully manipulates the various set pieces for maximum effect.
The most famous of a spate of movies dealing with Nazi war criminals in the 70s(The Odessa File and The Boys From Brazil being the other most noted examples) Marathon Man highlights our fascination for such old age monsters. The kidnap, trial, and execution of Eichmann by Mossad fueled the public’s interest mainly due to the fact that he and others like him committed such outrageous atrocities they made fictional villains almost redundant.
For those men to reach old age challenges the view of natural justice but equally makes one look at the stereotypes of senior citizens and their apparent vulnerability. Ira Levin has often dealt with the wicked in old age- especially in Rosemary’s Baby and the aforementioned Boys From Brazil and personifies it in Olivier’s Szell.
Doc underestimates Szell and this proves to be his undoing. Doc feels he has youth on his side and the audience witness his martial prowess in a violent balcony encounter in Paris (Interestingly this is witnessed by a man of advanced years who is ignored). When the two meet Doc dismisses him out of hand, even slapping him with disdain. The look on Szell’s face is enough to confirm the inherent arrogance of a man who once had control over the life and death of thousands. His reaction says volumes about the character that still inhabits his aged body.
The infamous dentist scene is another example of Szell’s ruthless dedication to prove to himself and others that he matters in a world that has moved on without him. He is a fossil from another age but one with the ability to remind the present that his teeth are still sharp enough to maim and kill as Babe finds out to his discomfort.
Szell not only retains his violence and pride but more importantly his greed. This is so overpowering that he comes out of hiding to reclaim his wealth. Perhaps the most disturbing scene in the entire film is when he giggles like a schoolgirl on opening his safety deposit box. This greed is so powerful that it takes him into the Jewish Diamond quarter in New York and the strongest section of the film. Even with the potential of being caught or worse, he cannot reign in his sold self-belief that he is superior.
The climax is fitting, as ultimately Babe does not underestimate Szell. Furthermore he is principled, without greed (unlike his brother Doc), and ruthless in his determination to win. After all he does run marathons and this steel is amazingly portrayed in flashback when he is running for his life.