Marathon Man (film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Marathon Man
Movie poster by Bill Gold
Directed byJohn Schlesinger
Screenplay byWilliam Goldman
Based onMarathon Man
by William Goldman
Produced by
CinematographyConrad Hall
Edited byJim Clark
Music byMichael Small
Robert Evans-Sidney Beckerman Productions
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • October 8, 1976 (1976-10-08)
Running time
125 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$6.5 million[1]
Box office$28.2 million[2]
Movie theatre in the Netherlands showing Marathon Man in 1977

Marathon Man is a 1976 American thriller film directed by John Schlesinger. It was adapted by William Goldman from his 1974 novel of the same title and stars Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, William Devane and Marthe Keller. In the film, "Babe" Levy, a graduate student, becomes embroiled in a plot by Nazi war criminal Christian Szell to retrieve ill-gotten diamonds from a safe deposit box owned by Szell's dead brother. Babe becomes unwittingly involved due to his brother Doc's dealings with Szell.

The film was a critical and box-office success. Olivier received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Szell, the film's antagonist.


Thomas Babington "Babe" Levy is a history Ph.D. candidate and avid distance runner, researching the same field as his father, who died by suicide after being investigated during the Joseph McCarthy era. Babe's brother, Henry, known as "Doc", poses as an oil company executive, but is actually a government agent working for a secret agency headed by Peter Janeway.

When Klaus Szell, the brother of a Nazi war criminal, is killed in a traffic collision, Doc suspects that the criminal, Dr. Christian Szell, will come to New York to retrieve an immensely valuable trove of looted Holocaust diamonds. Doc comes to New York under the guise of a visit to Babe. Meanwhile, Babe and his new girlfriend, Elsa Opel, who claims to be from Switzerland, are mugged by two men dressed in suits. The same two men greet Szell when he arrives at the airport.

When Doc takes Babe and Elsa to lunch, he tricks Elsa into revealing that she has been lying to Babe about her background. Although Doc suspects she may be connected to Szell, he tells Babe that she is seeking an American husband so she can become a U.S. citizen. After Szell arrives in America, Doc confronts him, stating he is not welcome in the country. Szell accepts the pronouncement, then stabs Doc with a blade concealed in his sleeve. Doc stumbles to Babe's apartment and dies in his brother's arms.

The police interrogate Babe until government agents, led by Janeway, arrive. Janeway asks Babe what Doc told him before he died, and tells Babe that his brother was a U.S. government agent. Babe insists that his brother did not tell him anything, but Janeway is convinced that Doc would not have struggled all the way to Babe's apartment without giving him vital information.

Babe is abducted from his apartment by the two men who mugged him in the park, and he is tortured by Szell. During his torture, Babe is repeatedly asked, "Is it safe?", but he is clueless as to what any of this means. He continues to deny any knowledge. Babe is rescued by Janeway, who explains that Szell is in America to sell a large cache of diamonds he had taken from Jews killed at Auschwitz. Janeway presses Babe about Doc's dying words, but Babe still insists he knows nothing. Frustrated, Janeway reveals himself to be a double agent and returns Babe to Szell. Still unable to extract any details from Babe, Szell drills into one of Babe's healthy teeth, causing excruciating pain. Because Babe still gives no information, Szell concludes Babe has no knowledge and tells the henchmen to dispose of the exhausted student. Babe eventually escapes, aided by his prowess as a marathon runner.

He phones Elsa, who agrees to meet him with a car. Arriving at a country house, Babe guesses that Elsa has set him up, forcing her to confess that the home was owned by Szell's deceased brother. Janeway and Szell's men Karl and Erhard arrive, but Babe takes Elsa hostage. Janeway kills Karl and Erhard as they attempt to shoot Babe. He offers to let Babe kill Szell in revenge for Doc's death if Janeway can have the diamonds. Babe agrees, but as he takes off, Elsa makes an effort to warn Babe of getting shot. Janeway tries to shoot Babe, but he kills Elsa instead. Babe fires through the window and kills Janeway.

Attempting to determine the value of his diamonds, Szell visits an appraiser in the Diamond District in midtown Manhattan, an area full of Jewish people. A shop assistant who is a Holocaust survivor finds that Szell looks familiar. 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 pursues and confronts Szell. However, Szell slits the man's throat with a concealed blade up his sleeve.

Szell retrieves his diamonds, but as he attempts to leave the bank, Babe forces him at gunpoint into Central Park and then to the Reservoir. Babe tells Szell he can keep as many diamonds as he can swallow. Szell initially refuses, but Babe begins throwing the diamonds into the water. Szell relents and swallows one diamond, but he then refuses to cooperate further. Desperate and angry, Babe throws the rest of the diamonds down the steps towards the water; Szell dives for them, but he stumbles, impaling himself on his own switchblade and falling into the water. Babe heads out into Central Park, stopping to throw his gun into the Reservoir.



Goldman was paid a reported US$500,000 (equivalent to $2.97 million in 2022) for the film rights to his novel, and to do a screenplay before the novel had been published.[3] Another source said that it was $450,000 (equivalent to $2.67 million in 2022).[4]

"The book reads like the movie-movie of all time", said producer Robert Evans. "I regard it as a cheap investment because you don't often find books that translate into film. This is the best thing I've read since The Godfather. It could go all, all the way — if we don't foul it up in the making."[5]

Goldman estimated that he wrote four versions of the screenplay, and says that Robert Towne was brought in at the end.[6]

Goldman says that John Schlesinger agreed to do the film only because he had just finished The Day of the Locust and was "terrified he was dead in Hollywood".[7]

Laurence Olivier was cast early on. However, he had health problems, and at one stage, it was uncertain if he would be able to do the film. Richard Widmark auditioned for the part, but Olivier eventually recovered, and was able to participate in filming.[7]

Marathon Man was the second feature film production in which inventor-operator Garrett Brown used his then-new Steadicam, after Bound for Glory.[8] 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.[citation needed]

The movie was filmed from October 1975 to February 1976.[citation needed]

"Why don't you just try acting?"[edit]

Marathon Man is famous in acting circles for an often quoted exchange between Hoffman and Olivier, concerning a perceived difference in their approaches to acting.

In the usual telling of the story, Hoffman, a proponent of method acting, prepared for a scene in which his character had been awake for three days, by doing the same himself. Following much goading and verbal put-downs by Hoffman, who criticized Olivier for not being as committed to his art as Hoffman, Olivier remarked, "My dear boy, why don't you just try acting?".[9] In an interview on Inside the Actors Studio, Hoffman said that this exchange had been distorted; that he had been up all night at a nightclub for personal rather than professional reasons, and Olivier, who was aware of this, was merely joking.[10]


The film explores themes of endurance and the pursuit of Nazi war criminals.[11][12][13] Some critics believed that the exhibited violence was necessary to the film and to the character of Babe. Other critics found the violence to be offensive.[14] Critic Pauline Kael considered the film to be a "Jewish revenge fantasy".[15] The nickname given to Laurence Olivier's character, "der weiße Engel" (The White Angel), was inspired by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, known as the "Angel of Death" (also "der weiße Engel" because, when he stood on the platform of arrivals to concentration camps, he looked like a "white angel" directing victims to their deaths).[16]

Babe originally has childish traits. As the film progresses, these childish traits are replaced with more adult ones. Michelle Citron of Jump Cut compared Babe to Carrie White in the 1976 film Carrie.[17]

Janeway is interested only in his own gain instead of the ideal to advance US interests. Paul Cobley stated in The American Thriller: Generic Innovation and Social Change in the 1970s that Janeway "can be read as the impersonality of late capitalism [...] or a post-Foucaldian embodiment of the shifting locations of power", or "a representative of the vicissitudes of the market".[18] Cobley identifies Melendez and his group as Janeway's "nemesis".[19]


John Schlesinger asked composer Michael Small to make music that matched the theme of "pain, and the endurance of pain".[20]

The opera Hérodiade by Jules Massenet is featured in the scene that takes place at the Paris Opera (Act III scene 8, Dors, ô cité perverse !... Astres étincelants, sung by Joseph Rouleau with the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by John Matheson, published on Decca Records).


The film was a financial and critical success. Olivier's performance was particularly praised. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 81% based on 47 reviews, with an average rating of 7.4/10. The consensus reads: "Marathon Man runs the gamut from patient mystery to pulse-pounding thriller, aided by Laurence Olivier's coldly terrifying performance and a brainy script by William Goldman."[21]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave Marathon Man 3 stars out of a possible 4. He wrote, "If holes in plots bother you, 'Marathon Man' will be maddening. But as well-crafted escapist entertainment, as a diabolical thriller, the movie works with relentless skill."[22]


Award Category Nominee Result
Academy Awards[23] Best Supporting Actor Laurence Olivier Nominated
Bambi Awards Best Actress – National Marthe Keller Won
British Academy Film Awards[24] Best Actor in a Leading Role Dustin Hoffman Nominated
Best Editing Jim Clark Nominated
British Society of Cinematographers[25] Best Cinematography in a Theatrical Feature Film Conrad Hall Nominated
David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Film Robert Evans Won
Best Foreign Actor Dustin Hoffman Won[a]
Edgar Allan Poe Awards Best Motion Picture Screenplay William Goldman Nominated
Golden Globe Awards[26] Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Dustin Hoffman Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Laurence Olivier Won
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Marthe Keller Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture John Schlesinger Nominated
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture William Goldman Nominated
Turkish Film Critics Association Awards Best Foreign Film 7th Place
Writers Guild of America Awards[27] Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium William Goldman Nominated

Cultural influence[edit]

Dr. Szell was ranked as villain #34 on its American Film Institute's "100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains" list. The film was ranked #50 on the "100 Years...100 Thrills" list. He was also ranked in Time as one of the 25 greatest movie villains. 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 placed #66 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments. The torture scene has been described as one of the most frightening sequences in film.[13] Critics have remarked on the high level of talent and class.[28]

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."[29]

Deleted violent scenes[edit]

Although the first preview of the movie was successful, the second one in San Francisco did not go well. The audience complained about all the violent scenes, so director John Schlesinger and editor Jim Clark chose to delete the following scenes and shots: the scene near the beginning of the film in which Doc fights two assassins who have killed his friend; the graphic and gory close-ups of Szell disemboweling Doc with his wrist blade; and both of the torture scenes, which were heavily cut. Graphic insert shots from the torture scenes, which were filmed by Clark, were removed. Some photos, such as original lobby cards and stills, show Szell torturing Babe longer with dental instruments in the first torture scene, and actual onscreen drilling of Babe's tooth in the second torture scene.[30]

Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic wrote, "While people said that the violence in Marathon Man was excessive, I was surprised: I had wriggled through that dental torture, but it hadn't seemed a pinnacle in a year during which I had seen two penises cut off and another penis nailed to a board—in films from France and Japan."[31]

Differences from the novel[edit]

An 8½-minute sequence was shot of Doc fighting with some men who kill a spy colleague. William Goldman speculated that the scene was cut because of its violence, and called the cut "grievous" and to the detriment of the film.[32] With the sequence missing, Doc's character seems to be less flawed than he really is.[32]

In the novel, Janeway and Doc are lovers. This is handled subtly in the movie (when Doc arrives in Paris, he calls Janeway on the phone and says, "Janie, I miss you. Get your ass over here [to the hotel room]"). In the book, their sexual relationship is not subtle at all, and has Doc pining for Janeway at several points.

The ending was rewritten by Robert Towne; it has been speculated that this was because Hoffman was unhappy with it.[33] Goldman told an interviewer that 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 and tries forcing him to swallow his diamonds, and Szell 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 throws the diamonds away and is quietly led away by a policeman.[33]


  1. ^ Tied with Sylvester Stallone for Rocky.


  1. ^ "Marathon Man". FSM Online Liner Notes.Archived 2014-10-20 at the Wayback Machine Film Score Monthly. Retrieved April 4, 2013
  2. ^ "Marathon Man, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 23, 2012.
  3. ^ Weiler, A. H. (May 26, 1974). "News of the Screen: Goldman's Latest Brings $500,000". The New York Times. p. 43.
  4. ^ Rosenfield, Paul. (Feb 18, 1979). "WESTWARD THEY COME, BIG BUCKS FOR BIG BOOKS". Los Angeles Times. p. n1. - Clipping of first page (Detail 1, Detail 2), second page, third page, fourth page, and fifth page from
  5. ^ Haber, J. (May 7, 1974). "'Marathon man' next movie-movie?". Los Angeles Times. ProQuest 157544719. - Clipping from
  6. ^ Goldman, W. (Jun 15, 1983). "Ailing Laurence Olivier proves to be a 'marathon' man". Chicago Tribune. ProQuest 175925022. - Clipping of first page and of second page (detail 1, detail 2, and detail 3) from
  7. ^ a b "William Goldman, "Widmark left indelible impressions"". Variety. April 4, 2008. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  8. ^ "Steadicam 30th anniversary press release". Archived from the original on 2014-04-30.
  9. ^ Simkins, Michael (31 March 2016). "Method acting can go too far – just ask Dustin Hoffman – Michael Simkins". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 September 2018.
  10. ^ Dillon, George. "Dustin Hoffman discusses the Laurence Olivier story". Retrieved 24 July 2022.
  11. ^ Bouzereau, Laurent. Ultraviolent Movies: from Sam Peckinpah to Quentin Tarantino. Citadel Press, September 1, 2000, 136. ISBN 0-8065-2045-0, ISBN 978-0-8065-2045-2.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ a b 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.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Kael, Pauline (1976-10-11). "Running Into Trouble". The New Yorker. Retrieved 17 January 2017.
  16. ^ "Josef Mengele – factfile". 9 September 2018. Retrieved 9 September 2018 – via
  17. ^ "Carrie meets Marathon Man." Jump Cut. No. 14, 1977. P. 10-12.
  18. ^ Cobley, Paul. The American Thriller: Generic Innovation and Social Change in the 1970s. Springer Publishing, November 9, 20009. ISBN 0333985125, 9780333985120. p. 157.
  19. ^ Cobley, Paul. The American Thriller: Generic Innovation and Social Change in the 1970s. Springer Publishing, November 9, 20009. ISBN 0333985125, 9780333985120. p. 158.
  20. ^ Bettencourt, Scott and Alexander Kaplan. "Marathon Man Archived 2014-03-04 at the Wayback Machine." Film Score Monthly. Vol. 13, no. 5. Retrieved on March 1, 2014.
  21. ^ "Marathon Man". Retrieved 17 December 2023.
  22. ^ Ebert, Roger (1976-10-18). "Marathon Man Movie Review & Film Summary". Retrieved 2017-01-04.
  23. ^ "The 49th Academy Awards (1977) Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on 2015-01-11. Retrieved 2011-10-03.
  24. ^ "BAFTA Awards: Film in 1977". BAFTA. 1977. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  25. ^ "Best Cinematography in Feature Film" (PDF). Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  26. ^ "Marathon Man – Golden Globes". HFPA. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  27. ^ "Awards Winners". Writers Guild of America. Archived from the original on 2012-12-05. Retrieved 2010-06-06.
  28. ^ Brown, Dennis Shoptalk, Newmarket Press, 1992, p 70
  29. ^ Mann, William J. Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger. Random House Digital, Sep 1, 2006. 444. Retrieved from Google Books on January 10, 2012. ISBN 0-8230-8469-8, ISBN 978-0-8230-8469-2.
  30. ^ Bettencourt, Scott. "Marathon Man". Film Score Monthly. Archived from the original on 20 October 2014. Retrieved 11 July 2014.
  31. ^ Kauffmann, Stanley (1979). Before My Eyes Film Criticism & Comment. Harper & Row Publishers. p. 423.
  32. ^ a b Bradey, John Joseph. The Craft of the Screenwriter: Interviews with Six Celebrated Screenwriters (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), p. 162.
  33. ^ a b Bradey, p. 166.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]