Friday, October 12, 2007

Marathon Man

The thriller is an international genre par excellence: it weaves people and plots together in networks that criss-cross national boundaries. Thrillers expose and take advantage of the soft belly of globalization. They take place on the street, in airports, in basements and parking garages, always in the interstices of modern life.

Marathon Man posterIn thrillers, motion is everything. Transport features prominently: cars, planes, boats, and in Marathon Man also running. Characters are always chasing or being chased, sometimes being chased when they think they're chasing or being led back into one trap when they believe they're escaping another.

Marathon Man is about a realignment of movements. It's no surprise that the opening scene should feature a car that gets stuck on the street. There's a blockage in the network, just as later when the film's anti-hero, a man named Doc, arrives in Paris he finds the taxi taking him from the airport is slowed in a tunnel by a posse of bicyclists protesting the effects of city traffic. They're trying to redefine the ways in which we circulate. Meanwhile, the film's hero, Doc's brother Babe, endlessly circles the Central Park reservoir, preparing himself for a marathon that will take him who knows where. In the film's finale, however, it's the water that we see recirculate: no longer a static reservoir, it now falls in sheets as backdrop to the climactic confrontation between Babe and the criminal mastermind, Dr. Christian Szell, who has inter alia earlier stopped Doc short by stabbing him in front of a fountain. And the scene ends as Szell plunges uncontrollably down a spiral metal staircase, into the waters below.

Indeed water features prominently in this movie. We first meet Szell in his riverside hideout, down in Uruguay. For the doctor is a Nazi war criminal, who is sheltering from justice where else but South America? He earned his liberty and his fortune by extorting first gold and then diamonds from Jewish inmates of wartime concentration camps by offering them the promise of escape from their confinement. But he finds both himself and his booty confined: he in this jungle retreat; the diamonds in a New York safety deposit box. And when the money can no longer circulate safely, because his brother dies in a car accident (another blockage in the road), he has to move on out, to face the risk of movement.

For movement is always double-edged. It can promise liberation, as when Babe runs from the chamber in which Szell tortures Babe with a dentist's drill. But this can be a false promise, a merely circular return to the same, as when one of Szell's henchman dramatically saves Babe only as a ruse to see if he'll confess to knowledge of the deposit box. And it is always unpredictable, subject to delay and disappointment as in the baggage handler's strike that greets Szell's own arrival in the big city. There are always enemies who wait for you on the road. This indeed is Szell's big fear: he wants to know that the way is clear, that the route is secure. "Is it safe?" he insistently asks of Babe. And his victim doesn't know what "it" is. But he should: it is movement itself.

So the film's plot is driven by a series of blockages and risky maneuvers, one of the most significant being Szell's river-borne departure from his Latin American safehouse. There are no jungles in Uruguay, which is a land of open plains rather than Amazonian creeks, but it's important for the film's kinetic logic that we see the former Nazi confront destiny by stepping out into the watery flow that will eventually lead him to the crowded streets of what is here a New York in which Jewish refugees are on every street corner. Some of them will remember Szell from the old days. And in the end he'll take a tumble into the drink, where his body gently floats as the water level slowly rises.

Marathon Man still
NB this is also yet another instance of the "dentist in Latin America" theme.

YouTube link: the movie trailer.

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