By Scott Ross
This dark, visceral adaptation by William Goldman and John Schlesinger of Goldman’s “What-If?” novel about a Mengele-like Nazi unavoidably drawn to New York City was one of the first “R”-rated movies I ever saw, and it shook me to the core. Pauline Kael was put off by the movie’s classical realism, believing the book’s potboiler status demanded a slicker approach, but I’m not sure. Schlesinger’s elegant verisimilitude gives the pulp plotting both a stylish patina and a prevailing sense of dread that drenches the narrative like a fever-dream. Goldman cleverly re-imagined his exciting novel for the screen, and his increasingly frightening use of the question “Is it safe?” briefly became a part of the American cultural language… and inspired a new fear of your friendly neighborhood dentist that was only slightly less pronounced than the embarrassed terror with which swimmers regarded the sea a year earlier, after the release of Jaws.
Dustin Hoffman is a bit… is “mature” the polite word?… for Goldman’s angry, bewildered graduate student drawn into an escalating, increasingly violent mystery, but he’s convincing in every other way. Roy Scheider gives one of his by-now standard superb performances as Hoffman’s laconic, dangerous brother and Laurence Olivier is the smoothest, most reasonable — and thus, terrifying—Nazi imaginable.
William Devane gives a nice mix of charm and menace to Scheider’s CIA compatriot, although their homosexual relationship, more or less explicit in the novel, is only hinted at here; Schlesinger, one of the few great “out” filmmakers, was notoriously shy of including overt homoerotic references in his movies.
The violence in the movie is sudden and bloody, but as with The Silence of the Lambs, it’s the threat hanging over the action that makes the movie feel like a bloodbath. This was, incidentally, the first Hollywood film to use the then-new Steadicam, smoothly capturing Hoffman’s various runs. The late Michael Small composed the eerie, disturbing electronic score.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross