By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a post graduate student at Columbia University and part-time marathon runner who spends a harrowing 48 hours being tortured and terrorized by a sadistic Nazi war criminal. It all starts when his brother Henry ‘Doc’ Levy (Roy Scheider) who works for a secret government organization known as ‘The Division’, secretly tracks Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) a dentist at Auschwitz who has traveled to New York in order to collect a cache of diamonds. When Doc moves in too close Szell stabs him and despite being covered in blood Doc manages to make it all the way to Babe’s apartment before collapsing. Szell fears that Doc might have told Babe something before he died and has his men kidnap Babe where they then tie him to a chair in an abandoned warehouse and Szell tortures him by drilling into his teeth forcing Babe to use his running skills in an effort to escape.
This is an original thriller that stays intriguing and intense throughout. In the first thirty minutes alone the viewer is treated to some interesting and exciting scenarios including watching two elderly men drag racing with each other in their antique cars down a crowded neighborhood street. There is also an exploding baby carriage and an exciting fight sequence where Doc battles an attacker who tries to strangle him from behind with a metal wire. This scene is unique in that it cuts between seeing the action up close as well as viewing it from the point-of-view of an elderly man watching from across the street.
Director John Schlesinger shows visual flair with a variety of camera angles and settings. I particularly liked the part where Doc meets Szell at the red steps statue in the Arco Plaza. Having the climactic showdown between Babe and Szell take place in a pump room at the reservoir in Central Park gives the sequence added energy and distinction. I also enjoyed Babe’s cramped, drab, and cluttered apartment that had a very lived-in look and resembled exactly what a bachelor pad with someone on a low income would look like. The scene taking place at a country house is memorable simply for its extreme remoteness. I was disappointed though that although Schlesinger does a great job in setting up the atmosphere of the scene by doing a long shot looking out at the barren landscape the weather suddenly goes from cloudy to sunny in the minute it takes for the bad guy’s car to pull up the driveway. I realize certain scenes are sometimes shot over several days and this is not the first movie to have sudden weather changes during outdoor shots, but it is distracting nonetheless.
The infamous torture scene didn’t work for me. I appreciated the set-up especially the prolonged way that Szell plugs the drill into a wall outlet while talking to Babe in a calm tone. Constantly asking Babe the question ‘Is it safe?” has become a classic line and the fact that the dental torture gets extended when you think it is over is well done. Still, it didn’t seem violent enough and although pain is implied I didn’t think that the viewer really ‘feels’ it. I wanted more shots from Babe’s point of view especially as Szell sticks his metal instruments into Babe’s mouth. A close-up of Babe’s tooth and seeing the drill touch it would have helped as well. Also, Babe needs to scream in pain a lot more, he does it once briefly, but someone going through that would be doing it constantly. Apparently the producer’s cut out portions of this scene when it upset the test audiences who saw it, but I would like that footage put back in as I feel it would make the movie stronger and give it an added kick that otherwise is missing.
Olivier is tremendous in the villainous role. His face exudes evil and this is one of his best later career roles. Scheider has his best role here and I found Marthe Keller impressive as Babe’s girlfriend. She wears an attractive hairstyle and I couldn’t get over how diametrically opposite she was compared to her character in Black Sunday that was done the very same year. She is definitely an under-rated actress that deserves more accolades as well as more parts in American productions. However, the way Babe pursues her for a date seemed to border on ‘creepy’ and overly aggressive and act as a turn-off to most women.
The film does seem derivative at certain points especially the way it portrays New York as an urban hellhole, which was quite common during the 70’s. The fact that Babe avoids confrontation and is picked on by a Hispanic gang that lives across the street seemed too reminiscent of Hoffman’s earlier film Straw Dogs. There are several flashback sequences showing Babe as a child that is done with faded color and no dialogue and look too similar to the childhood sequences done in Midnight Cowboy, which was an earlier Schlesinger/Hoffman project. Hoffman, for what it is worth, gives another one of his dedicated performances, but this film really does show in glaring detail how very puny he is and I really could have done without having to see his naked rear.
The electronic score is nice and the part where Szell gets recognized by an elderly concentration camp survivor on a busy city sidewalk and who then begins to chase after him is memorable. However, when it is all over I still felt it didn’t completely click. I’m not sure what it is. I know the ending was changed from the one in the book, but I liked this one better and felt Babe’s revenge on Szell was creative. Although controversial and edgy for its time, the torture scene seems too toned down for today’s standards. Either way, if you are looking for a competent and entertaining thriller this should fit the bill, but it is not a classic.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: October 8, 1976
Runtime: 2Hours 5Minutes
Rated R: (Violence, Language, Adult Theme, Brief Nudity)
Director: John Schlesinger
Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix Streaming