Marathon Man (film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Marathon Man
Marathon man.jpg
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]

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 (Hoffman), becomes embroiled in a plot by Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Olivier) to retrieve stolen diamonds from a safe deposit box owned by Szell's dead brother. Babe becomes unwittingly involved due to his brother Doc's (Roy Scheider) dealings with Szell. It was a critical and box office success, with Olivier earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Szell, the film's antagonist.


Thomas "Babe" Levy is a history Ph.D. student and an avid runner researching the same field as his father, H. V. Levy, who died by suicide after being investigated during the Joseph McCarthy era. Babe's brother, Henry "Doc" Levy, poses as an oil company executive, but is actually a government agent working for a secret agency headed by Commander Peter "Janey" Janeway. One of Doc's jobs is to serve as a diamond courier for the infamous Nazi war criminal Dr. Christian Szell, in return for the latter's assistance in tracking down other Nazi war criminals. Szell is known as der weiße Engel (German for The White Angel) due to his prominent mane of white hair. A wanted war criminal, Szell is ensconced in South America and is living off a large cache of diamonds which he had taken from Jews killed at Auschwitz. The diamonds are kept inside a safe deposit box at a bank in New York City and are withdrawn as needed by his brother Klaus Szell. After Dr. Szell's brother Klaus is killed in a fit of road rage, Szell feels that he cannot trust anyone anymore and proceeds to try to have all of the diamond handlers and couriers murdered, including Doc himself.

Escaping several murder attempts, Doc suspects that Szell will come to New York City to retrieve his valuable diamond collection. Doc comes to New York City 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. When Doc takes Babe and Elsa to lunch, he tricks Elsa into revealing that she has been lying to Babe about her background. Though Doc suspects she may be connected to Szell, he tells Babe that she is seeking an American husband so that she can become a U.S. citizen. After Szell arrives in America, Doc confronts him, stating that he should not have involved Babe in these matters and that he himself is not to be trusted. Szell then takes Doc by surprise and stabs him with a blade concealed in his sleeve. Doc returns to Babe's apartment and dies in Babe’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 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 in the park, and he is tortured by Szell using dentistry. During his torture, Babe is bombarded with questions, but he continues to deny any knowledge. Babe is then rescued by Janeway, who explains that Szell is in the U.S. to sell off his large cache of diamonds. Janeway presses Babe about Doc's dying words, but Babe still insists he knows nothing. Frustrated, Janeway reveals himself as a double agent and returns Babe to Szell. Still unable to extract anything from Babe, Szell drills into one of his healthy teeth. Babe eventually escapes, aided by his skills as a marathon runner.

Babe phones Elsa, who agrees to meet him with a car. Arriving at her 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 and Szell's men arrive, but Babe takes Elsa hostage. Babe kills Szell's men as they attempt to shoot him. Janeway offers to let Babe kill Szell in revenge for Doc's death, if Janeway can have the diamonds. Babe agrees, but as he leaves, Elsa alerts him to Janeway's attempt to betray him and is fatally shot. Babe then shoots Janeway through the window, killing him.

Attempting to determine the value of his diamonds, Szell visits an appraiser in the Diamond District in midtown Manhattan. A shop assistant who is a Holocaust survivor believes he recognizes Szell as a war criminal. After Szell hurriedly leaves the shop, 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 and aid her. Amidst the confusion, the shop assistant appears again, directly confronting Szell, who slits the man's throat.

Szell retrieves his diamonds but, as he attempts to leave, Babe forces him at gunpoint into a water-treatment facility two miles away in South Gate House, Central Park. Babe tells Szell that he can keep as many diamonds as he can swallow. Szell initially refuses, and Babe begins throwing the diamonds into the water. Szell relents and swallows one diamond, but then refuses to cooperate further. Szell releases the catch on his sleeve blade and tells Babe that both Babe's brother and father were weak. Babe throws the rest of the diamonds in Szell’s briefcase down the steps towards the water; Szell dives for them, but stumbles, and falls on his own switchblade, with his corpse falling over a railing and into the water. Babe heads out into Central Park, stopping to throw his gun into the reservoir.



Goldman was paid a reported $500,000 for the film rights to his novel and to do a screenplay, before the novel had been published.[3] (Another source said $450,000.[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 he wrote four versions of the screenplay and says Robert Towne was brought in at the end.[6]

Goldman says John Schlesinger only agreed to do the film 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 whether 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.

The movie was filmed from October 1975 to February 1976.

"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 where his character had been awake for three days by doing the same himself. When told of this, Olivier suggested "why don't you just try acting?"[9] In an interview on Inside the Actors Studio, Hoffman said that this exchange had been distorted: he had been up all night at the Studio 54 nightclub for personal rather than professional reasons and Olivier, who understood this, was joking.[10]


The film explores themes of endurance and the pursuit of Nazi war criminals.[11][12][13] 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.[14] Critic Pauline Kael considered the film 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" or 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 only interested in his own gain instead of the ideal to advance U.S. 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 43 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 gave Marathon Man 3 out of a possible 4 stars. 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 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. 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 was named #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 with 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 of his. 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 homosexual 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 in the book.

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 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.[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. ^ A, H, WEILER (May 26, 1974). "News of the Screen: Goldman's Latest Brings $500,000 Hart Crane's Life Subject of Film Columbia to Do Hallahan Novel". New York Times. p. 43.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  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 3 August 2022.
  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]