Marathon Man (film)

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Marathon Man
Marathon man.jpg
Movie poster by Bill Gold
Directed by John Schlesinger
Produced by Robert Evans
Sidney Beckerman
Screenplay by William Goldman
Based on Marathon Man
by William Goldman
Starring Dustin Hoffman
Laurence Olivier
Roy Scheider
William Devane
Marthe Keller
Music by Michael Small
Cinematography Conrad Hall
Edited by Jim Clark
Robert Evans-Sidney Beckerman Productions
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date
  • October 8, 1976 (1976-10-08)
Running time
125 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $6.5 million[1]
Box office $28.2 million[2]

Marathon Man is a 1976 American suspense-thriller film directed by John Schlesinger. It was adapted by William Goldman from his 1974 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.

The film was a critical and box office success, with Olivier earning a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his role as the film's antagonist.


Thomas "Babe" Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a history Ph.D. candidate and avid runner. Babe is researching the same field as his father, who committed suicide after the Communist witch hunts of the Joseph McCarthy era ruined his reputation. Babe's brother Henry (Roy Scheider), known as "Doc", presents himself as an oil company executive but is really a government agent, involved in an elaborate network of couriers who transport diamonds stolen during World War II from wealthy Jews seeking to flee Germany. The diamonds are sold for the benefit of fugitive Nazi war criminal Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), who in return helps in the hunt for other Nazi war criminals. Szell, a dentist who tortured Jews in a concentration camp, escaped capture and is now living off the diamond sales as a fugitive in South America (echoing real life Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele).

Christian Szell's brother, 72-year-old Klaus (Ben Dova), lives outside New York City and serves as the initial diamond courier, but is killed in a Manhattan road rage incident. Although Klaus' death was accidental, Christian suspects foul play and immediately puts everyone in the courier network under suspicion (anyone who obtains one of the two keys to the safe deposit box would immediately have access to a fortune in diamonds). Deducing this from hearing about the incident from his boss Peter Janeway (William Devane), Doc realizes that Christian Szell will have to travel to New York to retrieve the diamonds.

After discovering the disappearances or deaths of fellow couriers and escaping two attempts on his own life in Paris, Doc goes to New York under the guise of a visit to Babe. Meanwhile, Babe and his new girlfriend, Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller), who claims to be from Switzerland, are mugged by two men dressed in suits (whom we later learn are Nazi fugitives connected to Dr. Szell). Babe assumes the attack to be a random mugging, but Doc knows it's a warning for him.

When Doc takes Babe and Elsa to a French restaurant, he suspects Elsa is connected to Szell, and tricks Elsa into revealing that she has been lying about her background, and warns Babe against her by claiming that she doesn't care for him and is only seeking an American husband so that she can become a U.S. citizen. After Szell arrives in America (and is met at the airport by the two men who mugged Babe and Elsa), Doc angrily confronts the three, accusing Szell of crossing a line by involving his brother. Szell, after questioning Doc as to his own safety, then stabs Doc with a blade concealed in his sleeve. Doc makes it back to Babe's apartment before dying in his arms.

The police interrogate Babe then Doc's boss, Janeway, arrives and questions Babe on what Doc told him before he died. Janeway reveals that Doc was a government agent, working for a secret branch known as "The Division". 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 revealing something, and sets Babe as bait.

Babe is abducted from his apartment by the muggers, and Szell tortures him using a dental probe on a cavity in his tooth and repeatedly asking "Is it safe?" (to retrieve his diamonds). Babe truthfully denies any knowledge, but Szell tortures Babe relentlessly regardless of his answers. Babe is rescued by Janeway, who explains that Szell is in America to recover the 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. Making a final attempt to extract information from Babe, Szell drills into one of his healthy teeth, but gets nothing so Szell orders his men to "get rid of him". Babe escapes as they get him into their car, and aided by his skills as a marathon runner, evades Janeway's attempt to recapture him.

He gets to his neighborhood and sees that Janeway and Szell's men are now waiting outside his apartment building, Babe arranges with hoods in the neighborhood, to sneakily procure a gun from his apartment. He then calls Elsa from a pay phone, and while ostensibly driving him to a safe place, she arrives at a country home, to Babe's increasing suspicion. Babe concludes that Elsa is also part of Szell's network and has set him up, forcing her to confess that the home was owned by Szell's deceased brother.

Janeway and Szell's men arrive at the house and Babe takes Elsa hostage with his gun. As one of Szell's men reaches for his gun, Babe shoots him; Janeway joins in and shoots both of Szell's men, saying that they couldn't be trusted. Janeway then reveals where Babe can find Szell, ostensibly as restitution to Babe for Szell's murder of Doc, and Elsa implores Babe to leave. As Babe turns to leave, however, Janeway prepares to shoot Babe in the back. Elsa sees this and yells out a warning to Babe; so Janeway shoots Elsa and Babe manages to kill Janeway, then leaves to find Szell.

While attempting to determine the value of his diamonds, Szell is recognized by the shop assistant, who is also a Holocaust survivor. 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 to aid her. Amid the confusion, the shop assistant follows and confronts Szell, who slits the man's throat.

Szell retrieves his diamonds from the bank, but as he is leaving, Babe appears behind him and tells him, "It's not safe" and forces him at gunpoint to walk to a water treatment plant in Central Park (where Babe regularly runs). Szell, in an attempt to negotiate his escape, offers Babe a portion of the diamonds; Babe declines, telling Szell he can keep as many diamonds as he can swallow. Szell initially refuses, so Babe taunts Szell taking his briefcase and throwing handfuls of diamonds at him, which fall through the grating platform they're standing on and into the water below. Szell, aghast at Babe's actions, relents and swallows one diamond, but then refuses to cooperate further.

Szell tries to get close to Babe to stab him, accusing his late father and brother of being as weak and predictable as Babe is, and spits at him; Babe strikes Szell, but loses his grip on his gun. Szell then reveals his dagger and lunges at him, but Babe manages to avoid it and throw the open briefcase with the remaining diamonds down a stairwell towards the water. Szell dives towards the diamonds, but stumbles and rolls down the steps, fatally falling on his own knife blade. Babe heads out into Central Park, throwing his father's gun into the reservoir, and symbolically walks away in the opposite direction of the park's running patrons.



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.[3]

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."[4]

Laurence Olivier was cast early on. However he had health issues 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.[4]

Marathon Man was the second feature film production in which inventor/operator Garrett Brown used his then-new Steadicam, after Bound for Glory.[5] 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.

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

Marathon Man is famous in acting circles for an often quoted and misquoted exchange between Hoffman and Olivier concerning a perceived difference in their approaches to acting. Hoffman later set the record straight in a retrospective interview[citation needed], explaining:

When we got back to Los Angeles [Olivier] said, "How did your week go, dear boy?" And I told him we did this scene where the character I was playing was supposed to be up for three days. He says, "So what did you do?" I say, "Well I stayed up for three days and three nights." And [Olivier's] famous line was, "Why don't you just try acting?" ... It became kind of legend. It's been quoted so many times, at least in the acting circles. And the truth is I was the first one to quote that line ... They leave out the reality and just put in what feels more provocative or a better story. And what accompanied him saying "Why don't you just try acting?" ... He laughed, because he said, you know, "I'm one to talk." And then he was actually the first one that told me about risking his life every night jumping whatever it was twenty feet in the last act of Hamlet. And the truth of it is I didn't just stay up three days and three nights for the scene; it was a good excuse, because these were the days of wine and roses in Studio 54.


The film explores themes of endurance and the pursuit of Nazi war criminals.[6][7][8] 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.[9] Critic Pauline Kael considered the film a "Jewish revenge fantasy".[10]

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.[11]


John Schlesinger asked composer Michael Small to make music that matched the theme of "pain, and the endurance of pain".[12]

Reception and cultural impact[edit]

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.

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."[13] Rotten Tomatoes ranks the film at 80%, with 35 reviews.[14]

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 considered by Time Magazine as one of the 25 greatest movie villains to ever grace the screen. 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.[8] Critics have remarked on the high level of talent and classiness.[15]

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."[16]

Deleted graphic 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 second torture scene.[17]

Differences between the novel and film[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.[18] With the sequence missing, Doc's character seems to be less flawed than he really is.[18]

The ending was rewritten by Robert Towne because, it has been speculated, Hoffman was unhappy with it.[19] 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.[19]


  1. ^ Marathon Man: FSM Online Linear Notes. Film Score Monthly. Retrieved April 4, 2013
  2. ^ "Marathon Man, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 23, 2012. 
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ a b William Goldman, "Widmark left indelible impressions", Variety April 4, 2008 accessed 2 February 2014
  5. ^ "Steadicam 30th anniversary press release". 
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ Kael, Pauline (1976-10-11). "Running Into Trouble". The New Yorker. Retrieved 17 January 2017. 
  11. ^ "Carrie meets Marathon Man." Jump Cut. No. 14, 1977. P. 10-12.
  12. ^ Bettencourt, Scott and Alexander Kaplan. "Marathon Man." Film Score Monthly. Vol. 13, no. 5. Retrieved on March 1, 2014.
  13. ^ Ebert, Roger (1976-10-18). "Marathon Man Movie Review & Film Summary". Retrieved 2017-01-04. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ Brown, Dennis Shoptalk, Newmarket Press, 1992, p 70
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Bettencourt, Scott. "Marathon Man". Film Score Monthly. Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  18. ^ a b Bradey, John Joseph. The Craft of the Screenwriter: Interviews with Six Celebrated Screenwriters (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), p. 162.
  19. ^ a b Bradey, p. 166.

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