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 disagree; 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. As the screenwriter, 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 Babe Levy, Goldman’s angry, bewildered graduate student drawn into an escalating, increasingly violent maelstrom, but he’s convincing in every other way. Roy Scheider gives one of his standard superb performances as Hoffman’s laconic, dangerous brother Doc and Laurence Olivier is the smoothest, most reasonable — and thus, most terrifying — Nazi imaginable.
William Devane gives a nice mix of charm and menace to Scheider’s deep-state compatriot Janeways, 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. (Aside, obviously, from Sunday, Bloody Sunday.) The Scheider/Devane relationship, like Doc’s profession, constituted in the novel a sort of literary trick: Doc is both “Scylla,” the shadow government assassin, and Babe’s beloved older brother, and only at the moment of his death did the reader understand the two were the same character. Similarly, Janeways is introduced, sans any reference to gender, as “Janey,” leaving the reader to assume the character is a woman. So there was a nice shock there as well when he and Scylla are revealed as male-male, not male-and-female, lovers. Obviously, these devices cannot translate to the more surface-oriented world of film. And while as these things go the loss of these devices is a small one, it’s still a loss. Conversely, the Olivier character’s ironic demise — well and truly hoist on his own petard — is far more satisfying in the picture than in Goldman’s book.
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 picture 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 electronics-heavy score.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross