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You'll Have to Forgive Him, He's Only an Amateur
by Jon Schuller

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There have been many stories about amateurs doing fantastic things, things that supposedly only professionals can do. In all walks of life we see it today, from inventions to sports to business and the arts: people young and old, defying the odds, and creating something eventually used by millions. The tinkerers who invented movies were not professionals; the kids who created Microsoft and Facebook were simply trying something new; the brothers who invented the first airplane that really flew owned a bicycle shop; no one paid Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci for their immortal works of art; men who race for a living started out doing it for fun; screen tests for men and women who became movie stars started with unknowns; and how many stories are there of crimes being solved by amateurs? Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous non-professionals in history.

There are also stories about men and women who are accidently pushed into roles they not only aren't prepared for, but really don't want period. Whether by reluctant choice or not at all, they must do something, move reluctantly ahead as they stumble and trip until the problem is somehow resolved. News programs today feature ordinary people getting involved with everyday situations and making things better. The internet helps them instantly.

On October 8, 1976, a movie premiered that would become an instant success, creating immortal characters known around the world. It was directed by John Schlesinger, the screenplay by William Goldman (based on his 1974 book) and starred Dustin Hoffman,
Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, William Devane and Marthe Keller. It was titled Marathon

We are introduced to Thomas "Babe" Levy (Hoffman) who lives in New York City, is a PhD. candidate (in the same field as his father) and loves to run. His brother Henry, nicknamed "Doc," is a government agent involved in an elaborate scheme that uses diamonds stolen from Jewish families during World War II to pay a wanted fugitive Nazi war criminal, Dr. Christian Szell (Olivier) who lives in hiding in South America to expose other criminals. When Szell's brother, Klaus, is killed in a car accident, Christian suspects foul play and decides that everyone in the network is now a suspect, especially Babe's brother, Doc. Doc's boss, Peter Janeway (Devane), expects Szell to come out of hiding and travel to New York.

Doc flies to New York, ostensibly to see his younger brother, but to avoid more attempts on his life by Szell's henchmen. Babe has a new girlfriend, Elsa Opel (Keller) who claims she's from Switzerland and, at a dinner with Doc, is confronted that she's really working for Szell and getting Babe involved in his brother's previously unknown international intrigues. The couple is mugged after the dinner it's a warning from Szell.

Doc confronts Szell when they meet at the fountain in front of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. He threatens the old man and says he'll expose the network and the huge source of diamonds if they don't leave his brother alone. Szell stabs him with a long blade hidden in his sleeve. Doc somehow makes it to Babe's apartment and dies in his arms. Babe is now a suspect in his brother's murder but, even worse, he's unwittingly involved in the diamond network and a new target for Szell's
assassins. Janeway isn't convinced that Doc near death didn't reveal the secret network to Babe and arranges to have him kidnapped and tortured. The torture scene became one of the most famous and iconic in movie history.

Dr. Szell was a dentist and forcibly puts Babe into a chair and opens his mouth as he probes the teeth until he finds a very sensitive spot. As he touches it, the pain makes Babe squirm and sweat. Everyone who's ever watched this scene feels the pain too. Dr. Szell is trying to find out what he knows. He holds up the instrument and gently asks "Is it safe?" We all know the answer. Janeway is a double agent and is surprised and frustrated, especially when Babe escapes, running through cold, wet New York streets and elevated highways until he gets back to his apartment. He's still wearing pajamas.

He gets a hold of Elsa, who picks him up in a car and drives into the country to an old house. Again, Babe is confronted by Janeway and Szell's men (one of whom is a great movie villain, Marc Lawrence, as Erhardt). Babe has a gun and a standoff ensues, as Janeway shoots the henchmen, Elsa warns Babe and she too is shot. Babe shoots Janeway. The old house belonged to Babe's father, who killed himself as a result of the McCarthy era witch-hunt for Communists.

Szell pretends to be a visitor to the U.S. as he goes to the 47th Street Diamond District to determine the value of all the diamonds he's taken from a safe deposit box. They're in old coffee cans and there are literally thousands of diamonds. He finds out that just one small diamond is worth thousands. The street is famous and pretty much run by Orthodox Jews; he is
recognized by an old woman, a concentration camp survivor, who chases him on the street, yelling his name and is hit by a taxi. An older man also chases him and Szell stabs him to death. He escapes, catches a cab to the bank where the diamonds are. Babe has been following him from the bank, holding a gun on him. He forces Szell to Central Park where they wind up inside a water pumping station. Babe has become adept at the game, picking up from his brother Doc's talents.

Szell offers the diamonds to Babe if he'll let him go. But Babe taunts him as he starts throwing the diamonds into the deep pool of water. Szell panics and even though he appears docile and friendly, again tries to kill Babe, loses his balance and falls down the stairs. The diamonds are scattered all over the building. Babe walks away into the park, making the famous sucking sound of his aching tooth.

This film, with all of its dark secrets and terrible historical references, is a modern screen classic. Sir Lawrence Olivier's unforgettable Academy Award-nominated creation of Dr. Szell is iconic, like Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. Olivier won a Golden Globe for his performance. Dustin Hoffman's transition from a quiet, studious person into a cold-blooded killer is wonderful to watch and immortal. Some critics decried the violence as excessive; others mentioned Hoffman's childlike reactions replaced by a vengeful indifference to the pain of others. On an historical movie note: the first use of the new invention, the Steadicam, was in this film that was actually released into theatres.

I haven't met anyone who hasn't seen this movie. But it's always worth another viewing, regardless.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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