Marathon Man is the name of a film that was released by Paramount Pictures in 1976, based on a novel by William Goldman which he then adapted into a screenplay. John Schlesinger directed a thrilling tale of suspense, intrigue and occasional dark humor. The story centralizes around "Babe" played with incredible passion and unparalleled sincerity by Dustin Hoffman, who goes through the journey of the story about as confused and perplexed as the audience. Babe is a New Yorker training to run a marathon, and is habitually obsessed with his daily exercise, to the detriment of pretty much everything else in his life that takes second seat to his ambition. Babe's wayward brother Doc pays him an unexpected visit, and soon thereafter Babe's life is turned upside down. Due to a predictably trite, but in this case tolerably presented plot contrivance, Babe is mistaken by enemy spies as one himself, and is chased down, captured, and tortured. Babe finds himself in a race for his own life against time and for higher stakes than he's ever run from before. In order to survive, Babe has to put together remnant pieces of a puzzle whose origins date back to the second world war.

For its time, the directing and acting in this film is a benchmark. That alone should keep it as more than a mere footnote in the history of filmmaking. However, it rarely finds itself on lists by various firms trying to determine which are the best films of the twentieth century. It does have its flaws, but time is being relatively kind to it. While the tale told here does remain firmly grounded in its own time of the 1970s, it still speaks to audiences today, in much the same way a Shakespearean tragedy has withstood the test of time.

"Is it safe?"

What makes this film really stand out from the crowd of other contemporary films in the latter half of the twentieth century is one scene. After Babe is captured, he's strapped to a dentist's chair and the film's antagonist Hess, portrayed by Sir Laurence Olivier, enters the room and asks Babe one seemingly simple question, "Is it safe?" Hess then repeats this question with a false distant attachment to it, but a simultaneous determination and resolve.

Babe, having no idea what Hess is talking about, admits that he doesn't know what Hess means. However, that answer is not to Hess' liking, so Babe begins making up answers. Hess is not satisfied with any answer Babe gives, because Babe is completely oblivious to the context of the question: what is it that Hess refers to when he says "it"? Babe has no context, and therefore cannot give a realistic answer, real or fabricated. Indeed, at this point in the film, the audience is a bit in the dark as well. It's not until later that Hess' dilemma is revealed in more detail. We learn as Babe does that... well, I don't want to spoil the whole film for you. =)

Babe soon learns that no answer is sufficient for Hess. Hess then proceeds to torture Babe by removing teeth from Babe's mouth without anesthesia. This curious scene of dentistry is without question one of the most chilling torture scenes presented in American cinema. It is not a matter of how graphic the scene is, because it's not overtly graphic (certainly not when compared to more recent films involving torture like Saw or Se7en). Schlesinger's direction of the scene is indicative of the 'less is more' approach to filmmaking, which is sorely lacking in this modern-day CGI overkill, where the approach is to show the audience too much, and leave nothing to the imagination. This scene in Marathon Man is phenomenal because Schlesinger doesn't need to show us everything, but he does manage to make us feel it. Strangely enough, sources indicate that this scene was originally longer, with more graphic depictions of dentistry as torture. However, members of early audiences used to preview the film took ill, and so Schlesinger left part of the original scene on the cutting room floor. Less truly is more effective, here.

"Your father was weak in his way. Your brother in his, and now you in yours."

The acting in this film is superb. It's a meeting of the minds of two talents separated by a generation. It's obvious that Hoffman felt a need to raise the bar of his own work, because he was facing off against the incomparable Laurence Olivier, one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of modern times. Likewise, Olivier literally dissolves into the role of Hess, and makes acting appear as effortless as ballet. He brings a weight to the character by his very demeanor, yet doesn't do it in an overly melodramatic way. Olivier brings to bare a presence that depicts a man dragged down by mistakes of his past and tragic flaws of his own mentality, without playing it sinister or unrealistically, and this only makes him all the more chilling and sinister in his realism. Olivier doesn't play a stereotypically evil man, so much as a human being with frailties and weaknesses, who is reactionary to the ramifications of his past and desires to selfishly improve his future, at the expense of everything and anything around him. In the end we almost feel sorry for Hess, while simultaneously knowing he deserves what's coming to him. It has been argued that Olivier was suffering from the early symptoms of ailments including cancer and a neuromuscular disorder which eventually led to his death in 1989, and therefore was not at his best during production of the film. Even so, Olivier on his worst day sharing the stage with Hoffman on his best, makes for a massively tense and entertaining experience captured on film.

Many cite this film as an example of Dustin Hoffman's curious approach to method acting. He purposefully began a regimen of running four miles a day and lost fifteen pounds prior to principal production. Hoffman also insisted on being held under water himself for dangerously long periods of time during the scene in which his character was being drowned by bad guys. There's a myth that he purposefully stayed up all night prior to the filming of a scene in which his character was supposed to have been without sleep. In actuality, according to Hoffman himself, he had recently been involved with a divorce and spent the night prior to filming partying a bit too hard in celebration. When Laurence Olivier learned that Hoffman was being reckless in his 'method' of method acting, it's been documented that Olivier said to Hoffman "Why not try acting? It's much easier." On the last day of principal photography, Olivier gave to Hoffman a prized edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and at Hoffman's insistence, even read passages of the book to Hoffman's delight. The two men shared a mutual affection for the works of The Bard, and in that way found common ground.

Marathon Man is slow in the beginning, and requires a patience and intelligence from its audience that is unlike anything in modern day cinema. The phrase "they don't make them like they used to" would certainly apply to Marathon Man. The supporting cast is perhaps not well presented. We focus a lot on Babe himself, whose life prior to Hess is monumentally boring and lacks direction, and the early part of this film reflects that. There's not enough of Roy Scheider to be honest, but the focus of the story is on Babe's unrealized lonliness in his own skin, and that requires he not have anyone in particular to turn to when the tumblers of his fate do start falling into place. Marathon Man is the story of a man running from events that occurred before he was even born, and how he reacts to ramifications of those events as they inadvertently pull him in to their reality and fears. Oh. And there's also diamonds involved. There's always diamonds in movies like this.

The antagonist in the story is based loosely off the real historical figure of Doctor Josef Mengele, who was still alive in South America, living the life of a fugitive, at the time the film was released.

Dustin Hoffman . . . . Thomas "Babe" Babington Levy
Laurence Olivier . . . . Dr. Christian "The White Angel" Szell, aka Christopher Hess
Roy Scheider . . . . . Henry David "Doc" Levy, Babe's brother
Lotte Palfi Andor . . . . Old Lady on 47th Street
Richard Bright . . . . Karl
Nicole Deslauriers . . . . Nicole
William Devane . . . . Peter Janeway
Ben Dova . . . . Klaus Szell (Szell's Brother)
Lou Gilbert . . . . Rosenbaum
Tito Goya . . . . Melendez
Allen Joseph . . . . Babe's Father
Marthe Keller . . . . Elsa Opel
Marc Lawrence . . . . Erhard
Jacques Marin . . . . LeClerc
Fritz Weaver . . . . Professor Biesenthal
James Wing Woo . . . . Chen

Writer: William Goldman (both novel and screenplay)
Director: John Schlesinger
Producers: Robert Evans, Sidney Beckerman and George Justin
Film Editing: Jim Clark
Music: Michael Small, Jules Massenet, Charles Mougeot, and Franz Schubert
Stuntmen: Everett Creach, Frank Orsatti and Jerry Summers

Sources Cited
and this E2 noder's personal experience with viewing the film.

"I'm a demon for details."

There may be spoilers beyond this point. Below I intend to maintain useful input by other fellow noders regarding this topic. If you have anything you'd like to add to this node, but not enough detail to create your own node, please feel free to /msg me in the chatbox, and I'll consider adding it below.

DejaMorgana pointed out, "Another very powerful scene which might be worth mentioning is the bit where the old Jew recognises Szell in the Diamond District and everybody starts looking for him. I vaguely recall that this scene worked better in the book, but it was pretty damn spooky in the movie too. Also, if you care about trivia connections at all, the interrogation scene was quoted in Gremlins 2 (hell, just about every great movie ever was quoted in Gremlins 2) and "is it safe" placed something like #50 in the AFI's Top 100 Film Quotes list. Very nicely done w/u altogether - thanks for not spoiling the story."

To extrapolate on DejaMorgana's input, I should add that the film Marathon Man was not only referenced in Gremlins 2, but it has also been referenced in a score of other films including American Beauty, Conspiracy Theory starring Mel Gibson, Ghostbusters 2, Toy Story 2, Bruce Willis' Hudson Hawk, Hot Shots! and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. In the latter example, Laurence Olivier played an antagonist in the story after his own death (thanks to the magic of CGI), and the phrase "is it safe?" was purposefully incorporated into the dialogue to underline this. Marathon Man was also spotlighted in the biographical documentary about producer Robert Evans called The Kid Stays In the Picture.

gitm says "re 'appear as effortless as ballet' - Isn't that like saying 'Building a house is appears as effortless as building the pyramids'?"

well, to me, 'effortless as ballet' conveys something that looks like magically defying the laws of physics but is really very hard work. I was going for a compelling, descriptive metaphor rather than something realistic or even rational. =)

JohnnyGoodyear says: "Very good Zach and very good for not going too far with the spoilage. For a period of western culture that is deeply suspect (style-wise) now, there are a raft of cynical script-driven thrillers from that period that are hard to imagine being made (or matched) today. The Conversation, The Parallax View, Three days of the Condor and on and on. Marathon man has earnt its place in that list of (largely American) movies that are seem more intelligent with each passing year."

I would add All The President's Men to that list, which also starred Dustin Hoffman. There's a handful of great films from around this time in history that did not talk down to their audience or try to use explosions and car chases alone to keep their interest. Despite its flaws, I agree that Marathon Man's a great example of that rarity among cinematic thrillers.

smartalix says "I thought the Doc's name in Marathon Man was Zell? And didn't he drill into Hoffman's front tooth, not pull any? Just nitpicking."

I was trying to be vague regarding elements of the film that some might find spoilery. However, your description is more accurate, SmartAlix. Christopher Hess was Zell's fake name. Again, didn't want to give too much of the story away. If memory serves, we meet Olivier's character as Hess before we learn he's also Zell. I could be wrong though, as I haven't seen the film in some time. Also since I confirm that Olivier is the antagonist in the piece, it's difficult to not at least partially ruin the movie for the uninitiated.

smartalix replied "I would say the film is old enough for you to get away with saying "spoilers below" then being as accurate as neccessary. Even people who didn't see the film know about the drilling scene."

You may have a point. However, others have appreciated my effort to not give away the whole film. There's some things about this memorable movie that potential viewers should find out for themselves. In this case, accuracy isn't as important as whetting the appetite. Some people who didn't see the film may think they already know all there is to know about it, but no words can replace the look on Hoffman's face when Olivier draws ever closer with the drill.