Marathon Man (film)
Movie poster by Bill Gold
|Directed by||John Schlesinger|
|Produced by||Robert Evans
|Screenplay by||William Goldman
Robert Towne (uncredited)
|Based on||Marathon Man
by William Goldman
|Music by||Michael Small|
|Editing by||Jim Clark|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Running time||125 minutes|
Marathon Man is a 1976 suspense/thriller film directed by John Schlesinger. It was adapted by William Goldman from his novel of the same name and stars Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, William Devane and Marthe Keller. The music score was composed by Michael Small.
Thomas "Babe" Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a history Ph.D. candidate and avid runner researching the same field as his father, who committed suicide after being investigated during the Joseph McCarthy era. Babe's brother (Roy Scheider), known as "Doc," poses as an oil company executive but is actually working for a secret agency headed by Peter Janeway (William Devane).
When the brother of a Nazi war criminal is killed in a traffic accident, Doc suspects that the criminal, Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), will come to New York to retrieve a valuable diamond collection. Narrowly escaping a vicious attempt on his own life in Europe, Doc travels to New York after being told that Babe and his new girlfriend, Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller), have been mugged by two men dressed in suits.
When he takes Babe and Elsa to lunch, Doc tricks Elsa into revealing that she has been lying about her background. Doc suspects she may be connected to Szell, but he tells Babe that she must be seeking an American husband so that she can become a U.S. citizen.
Szell arrives in America. He has a meeting arranged with "Scylla," which is Doc's spy agency code name. Doc angrily confronts Szell, irate over the mugging of Babe. ("We never involve family!") Szell's only concern is whether it will be safe for him to collect his diamonds. Doc replies that he doesn't care, whereupon he is stabbed with a blade concealed in Szell's sleeve.
Doc barely makes it back to Babe's apartment before dying. The police arrive and interrogate Babe, followed by Janeway and his men. Janeway wants to know what Doc told him before he died. He informs Babe that his brother was a U.S. government agent. Babe insists that his brother did not tell him anything, but Janeway is convinced Doc would not have struggled all the way to Babe's apartment without giving him vital information.
Babe is later abducted from his apartment by the two men who mugged him in the park. Strapped to a dentist chair, he is tortured by Szell. In terrible pain, Babe is repeatedly asked "Is it safe?" but continues to deny any knowledge.
With the others out of the room, Babe is miraculously rescued by Janeway. He explains to Babe calmly that Szell is in America to sell off a large cache of diamonds which he had taken from Jews killed at Auschwitz. Janeway continues to demand Doc's dying words, but Babe still insists he knows nothing. A frustrated Janeway reveals himself as a double agent and returns Babe to Szell. Still unable to extract any useful information, Szell drills into one of his healthy teeth.
Babe eventually escapes, staggering through the streets of New York, aided by his skills as a marathon runner. He phones Elsa, who agrees to meet him with a car. Arriving at a country home, Babe guesses that Elsa has set him up, forcing her to confess that the home was owned by Szell's deceased brother. Janeway's and Szell's men arrive, so Babe uses Elsa as a hostage. Janeway ruthlessly kills Szell's men and offers to let Babe personally kill Szell in revenge for Doc's death if Janeway can have the diamonds. Babe agrees, but after he leaves Janeway kills Elsa. Suspecting that something like that would happen, Babe returns and shoots Janeway.
Attempting to determine the value of his gems, Szell visits an appraiser in the Diamond District of midtown Manhattan. A shop assistant who is a Holocaust survivor believes he recognizes Szell as a war criminal. Szell hurriedly leaves the shop, but an elderly Jewish woman also recognizes him. Trying to cross the street to get closer to Szell, the woman is hit by a taxi, causing a crowd to assemble to aid her. Amidst the confusion, the shop assistant appears again, calling out Szell's name, coming toward him. Szell slits the man's throat.
Szell retrieves his diamonds from a bank. Waiting outside is Babe, who forces him at gunpoint into a water treatment plant in Central Park near his daily jogging path. Babe tells Szell he can keep as many diamonds as he can swallow. Szell says, "You're joking," to which Babe replies, "No, I don't think so, I'm not joking. Essen!" (meaning "eat"). He hurls handfuls of diamonds, many of which fall through the grating platform they're standing on and into the water below.
Szell relents, swallowing one diamond. He refuses to cooperate further, saying Babe will have to shoot him. Szell brings up Babe's father and brother and accuses Babe of being weak and predictable, then spits at him.
Babe strikes back but in the process loses his grip on the gun. Szell reveals his dagger and lunges at him, but Babe manages to avoid it and throw the open briefcase with the remaining diamonds down the stairwell towards the water. Szell dives for them, but stumbles and rolls down the steps, falling on his own knife blade. Szell looks at the knife in his stomach in amazement and pulls it out just before collapsing into the water. Babe heads out into Central Park, stopping to throw his father's gun into the reservoir.
- Dustin Hoffman as Thomas "Babe" Levy
- Laurence Olivier as Dr. Christian Szell
- Roy Scheider as Henry "Doc" Levy
- William Devane as Peter Janeway
- Marthe Keller as Elsa Opel
- Richard Bright as Karl
- Marc Lawrence as Erhardt
- Tito Goya as Melendez
- Fritz Weaver as Professor Biesenthal
- Jacques Marin as LeClerc
The movie was filmed from September 1975 to January 1976.
Goldman was paid a reported $500,000 for the film rights to his novel and to do a screenplay.
Marathon Man was the second feature film production in which inventor/operator Garrett Brown used his then-new Steadicam, after Bound for Glory. However, it was the first feature using the Steadicam that saw theatrical release, predating the premieres of both Bound for Glory and Rocky by two months. This new camera stabilization system was used extensively in Marathon Man's running and chase scenes on the streets of New York City.
Laurent Bouzereau, author of Ultraviolent Movies: from Sam Peckinpah to Quentin Tarantino, said "The interesting psychological aspect of Marathon Man lies in the fact that Babe is a character who refuses to believe that his father was a Communist traitor. His father died because he refused to defend himself; he refused to fight back."
Patricia Erens, author of The Jew in American Cinema, said that Marathon Man depicts a struggle between a Jew and a Nazi in which, despite the inequality of the forces, the Jew ultimately prevails over the Nazi.
Gene D. Phillips, author of Major Film Directors of the American and British Cinema, Volume 1999, said that by the standards of the marathon runner creed "If you're a marathon runner, you don't give in to pain", Babe becomes "a genuine marathon man" at the conclusion since he has "truly gone the distance" and outlasted the antagonists.
In regard to the ending, Bouzereau commented that "Babe uses the weapon with which his father killed himself to shoot Janeway—a real traitor—at the end. When Szell stabs himself with the knife he used to murder Scylla, it's as if Babe's revenge has come full circle in some kind of weird ritual. The last image of Babe throwing the gun away shows that now justice has been done, he has no further need for a weapon." Bouzereau added that Babe could only accomplish his goals and survive by using violence, and that Babe also "knew when to stop; others don't."
Director Schlesinger said that Marathon Man was successful not only because it had elements of escapism, but also because the audience easily identified with Babe Levy. Schlesinger said that he "is definitely someone that you can root for. The film is about his survival in a grim and hostile world. In our present age of anxiety we can all identify with characters who are not trying to get ahead but simply to survive."
The film was a financial and critical success. Olivier's performance was particularly praised: he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and he won a Golden Globe in the same category.
Some critics believed that the violence exhibited was necessary to the film and to the character of Babe. Other critics found the violence to be offensive. Laurent Bouzereau, author of Ultraviolent Movies: From Sam Peckinpah to Quentin Tarantino, called it faithful to the novel and to the original screenplay.
Dr. Szell was ranked as villain #34 on the American Film Institute's "100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains" list. The film itself was ranked #50 on the "100 Years...100 Thrills" list. Both the novel and film contain a graphic depiction in which Szell tortures Babe by first probing a cavity in one of Babe's teeth with a curette, and later drilling into another tooth, without anesthetic, while repeatedly asking the question, "Is it safe?" The quote "Is it safe?" was ranked #70 on the "100 Years...100 Movie Quotes" list. The dental torture scene was named #66 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
Gene D. Phillips, author of Major Film Directors of the American and British Cinema, Volume 1999, said that the torture scene was "one of the most frightening sequences in the movies." Phillips argued that the director "stimulates maximum audience identification with Babe by photographing Szell from his victim's subjective point of view, as he implacably trains his drill on a fresh, live nerve in Babe's mouth" and that "[t]he menacing drill thus moves closer and closer to the camera, as if Szell were aiming the gruesome instrument at the viewer."
Goldman later said "there's a lot of talent in Marathon Man. It's a very classy picture."
Differences between the novel and film 
An 8½ minute sequence was shot of Doc fighting with some men who kill a spy colleague of his. William Goldman speculates that it was cut because it was violent and that it was a "grievous" cut to the detriment of the film. With the sequence missing, Doc's character seems to be less flawed than he really is.
The ending was rewritten, according to Goldman, because Hoffman was unhappy with it. Goldman was not sure who wrote it, but told an interviewer he thought the new, more famous ending was "shit" because it left out two important plot clarifications. The final confrontation between Babe and Szell, in particular, is changed: in the film, Babe "spares" Szell in a pump room, tries forcing him to swallow his diamonds and Szell then falls on his own retractable blade, dying. In the novel, Babe resolutely leads Szell to Central Park and shoots him multiple times, subsequently lecturing him. He then throws the diamonds away and is quietly led away by a policeman. (Robert Towne rewrote the ending.)
- Marathon Man: FSM Online Linear Notes. Film Score Monthly. Retrieved April 4, 2013
- "Marathon Man, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 23, 2012.
- News of the Screen: Goldman's Latest Brings $500,000 Hart Crane's Life Subject of Film Columbia to Do Hallahan Novel By A, H, WEILER. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 26 May 1974: 43.
- "Steadicam 30th anniversary press release".
- Bouzereau, Laurent. Ultraviolent Movies: from Sam Peckinpah to Quentin Tarantino. Citadel Press, September 1, 2000. 136. Retrieved from Google Books on January 9, 2012. ISBN 0-8065-2045-0, ISBN 978-0-8065-2045-2.
- Erens, Patricia. The Jew in American Cinema. Indiana University Press, 1988. 348. Retrieved from Google Books on January 9, 2012. ISBN 0-253-20493-3, ISBN 978-0-253-20493-6.
- Phillips, Gene D. Major Film Directors of the American and British Cinema, Volume 1999. Lehigh University Press, 1999. 236. Retrieved from Google Books on January 30, 2012. ISBN 0-934223-59-9, ISBN 978-0-934223-59-1.
- Mann, William J. Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger. Random House Digital, Inc., Sep 1, 2006. 444. Retrieved from Google Books on January 10, 2012. ISBN 0-8230-8469-8, ISBN 978-0-8230-8469-2.
- Bouzereau, Laurent. Ultraviolent Movies: from Sam Peckinpah to Quentin Tarantino. Citadel Press, September 1, 2000. 135. Retrieved from Google Books on January 9, 2012. ISBN 0-8065-2045-0, ISBN 978-0-8065-2045-2.
- Phillips, Gene D. Major Film Directors of the American and British Cinema, Volume 1999. Lehigh University Press, 1999. 236, 238. Retrieved from Google Books on January 30, 2012. ISBN 0-934223-59-9, ISBN 978-0-934223-59-1.
- Dennis Brown, Shoptalk, Newmarket Press, 1992 p 70
- Bradey, John Joseph. The Craft of the Screenwriter: Interviews with Six Celebrated Screenwriters (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), p. 162.
- Bradey, p. 166.
Further reading 
- Kerner, Aaron. Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives on Dramas, Documentaries, and Experimental Films. Continuum International Publishing Group, May 5, 2011. 169-173. ISBN 1-4411-2418-7, ISBN 978-1-4411-2418-0.
- Marathon Man at the Internet Movie Database
- Marathon Man at the TCM Movie Database
- Marathon Man at AllRovi
- Marathon Man at Rotten Tomatoes