Over-complicated occasionally thoughtful thriller studded with contemporary nods to ecology and keeping fit pits history student Babe (Dustin Hoffman) against war criminal Szell (Laurence Olivier) in latter-day version of a hunt of Nazi ‘gold.’ Although obsessed with clearing the name of his dead father from charges trumped up during the Communist witch hunt, Babe is not the nerd of The Graduate, his persistence resulting in a romantic tryst with out-of-his-league Swiss blonde Elsa (Marthe Keller). The existence of a secretive government agency tilts this towards the paranoia thriller mini-genre.
It takes a while for all the pieces of the jigsaw to fall into place as we try to absorb the importance of a freak accident in New York that kills a German whose diamonds end up in the hands of Babe’s brother Doc (Roy Scheider), a rich businessman who appears to double up as a courier of some kind. Delivering the jewellery to connection LeClerc (Jacques Marin) in Paris, Babe’s suspicions that something is awry are confirmed when he realizes a bomb planted in the street was intended for him, later finds LeClerc dead and is attacked in his hotel room.
Meanwhile, the mysterious Szell emerges from his South American hideout and heads for New York. Doc blows up Babe’s romance by revealing his girlfriend is lying about her origins. Doc then keeps an appointment with Szell who proceeds to knife him although he manages to survive long enough to die in Babe’s apartment, shadowy government agent Janeway (William Devane) among others convinced Doc told Babe something important before he died.
That notion paints Babe as the target especially as Szell is of the same opinion. Soon Babe, literally on the run, is enmeshed in lethal game of double-cross but not before he makes the acquaintance of Szell who puts his dentistry skills to work in a still wince-inducing torture scene. It takes another fair while to work out not just who is who, but who Babe can trust, and what’s going on, the true nature of his brother’s employment and what exactly is the role of the government “special division that does what the F.B.I. and C.I.A. can’t handle.”
By the time it becomes a straightforward thriller, the tension has ratcheted up to eleven and Babe is fighting for his life not just against a killing machine but a sadistic one at that. It’s not just the hint of the government black ops lurking in the background that gives this picture an extra dimension, but it presents an eerie prediction of contemporary concerns with its acknowledgement of ecological activists, the interest in running that was just a sneered-at fad at the time, and a world that could at any time be disrupted by strike action.
There are some terrific set pieces and bold directorial choices, one murderous assault mostly seen from the point of view of an elderly invalid across the street who can scarcely see what is going on for curtains in the way. Trapped in the bathroom Babe can only watch as assailants prise the door off, especially terrifying as the bath has been previously signalled as Babe’s refuge, slumped in the water with a cloth masking his face. There’s a clever meet-cute and any number of incidentals in the passers-by caught on camera.
This was as slick an A-list picture as Hollywood could muster in the 1970s with Dustin Hoffman on an Oscar- (three nominations so far) and commercial-streak – Papillon (1973) and All the President’s Men (1976) solidifying his box office marquee. Laurence Olivier (Sleuth, 1972) cemented his position as the world’s best actor heading a top-notch cast that included Roy Scheider (The French Connection, 1971) and the teeth-baring William Devane (Rolling Thunder, 1977), directed by British Oscar-winner John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) and written by the legendary William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969) from his own bestselling novel. Marthe Keller was at the start of a Hollywood roll with Black Sunday (1977), Bobby Deerfield (1977) and Billy Wilder’s Fedora (1978) to come.
Echoing Alan J. Pakula in The Parallax View (1974), Schlesinger lets many tense scenes roll minus music and the score, when it does appear, is by the king of the eerie score, Michael Small (The Parallax View). Pick of the images, though, is the football bouncing from nowhere into a scene that triggers Doc’s panic. It’s not a paranoia thriller in quite the same vein as The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor, but the existence of a secret government agency willing for its own reasons to do a deal with the most horrific people strikes another contemporary note.