When Thomas Babington's secret agent brother is murdered before his eyes, he becomes embroiled in a plot involving smuggled diamonds and Nazi war criminal, former SS dentist Szell, the White Angel of Auschwitz.
The only movie to truly deliver the visceral power of a dental drill, John Schlesinger’s taut, well written if far-fetched and baffling thriller, is the film that gives you tooth ache in a good way. “Is it safe?” Those words fire a Pavlovian shock of pain through the upper molars for anyone who has taken in the film, an empathic response to former Nazi Laurence Olivier drilling away inside Dustin Hoffman’s innocent mouth, while asking that obscure question. He’s after info, a clearance to sell his ill-gotten diamonds (stolen from Jews during the war), but Hoffman’s luckless Babe has no idea what he’s on about.
It’s a moment of icy genius, a starburst of cinema’s knee-jerk powers that almost overpowers all the knitted paranoia of the rest of the movie. William Goldman, a sharp clean screenwriter, sprawls about in unusually complicated fashion — here is a tale of a CIA black ops organisation called The Division who have dipped dirty fingers on all sides, including housing former Nazis, and the clean brother of one doomed operative who doesn’t possess the vital secret everyone thinks he does.
The title refers to Babe’s compulsion to run, something that will end up serving him in good stead. Hoffman threw himself into the part with familiar zeal, you half expect he required Olivier to actually drill his teeth. Oliver’s immortal response to the Method madness going on — “Why not try acting? It’s much easier” — harkens from this very shoot, although there is the air of the apocryphal about the story. The ease with which Olivier transforms into this chilling refuge from the swollen evil of the past grants the film a resonance beyond its basic trappings. In real terms, there is nothing more than the motorised scheming of Goldman’s script and John Schlesinger’s up-close style going on, but his actors give its stretched ideas a seriousness and shock value, beyond putting your teeth on edge.
Cult thriller that continues to resonate with audiences