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Film / Marathon Man

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"Is it safe?"

A 1976 American political thriller film directed by John Schlesinger, adapted by writer William Goldman from his own novel of the same name. The cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, William Devane, and Marthe Keller.

Thomas "Babe" Levy (Hoffman) is a history graduate student and aspiring marathon runner who seeks to follow in the footsteps of his father, a historian who committed suicide after being unjustly targeted by Joseph McCarthy. He receives a visit from his brother Henry "Doc" Levy (Scheider), who—unbeknownst to Babe—is employed by a secretive U.S. government agency managing a Nazi war criminal, Dr. Christian Szell (Olivier). Babe soon finds himself entangled in events, and must fight to save himself from Szell and his allies.

A very surrealistic sequel to the novel, Brothers, was published several years later.

Not to be confused with Stephen King's The Running Man, another bleakly political novel turned into an iconic film— which takes its title much more literally.

Marathon Man provides examples of:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: Szell's retractable blade guts Doc as easily as a knife through butter.
  • Agents Dating: Doc Has a lengthy flirty conversation with an off-screen "Janey." We later find out that "Janey" is Peter Janeway's nickname, indicating he and Doc were more than just partners.
  • Affably Evil: Janeway is a very affable man in spite of being a traitor and a murderer.
  • The Alleged Car: Dr. Szell's brother has trouble getting his old car to move at a green light. This leads to road rage, which leads to his death, which leads to Dr. Szell coming to New York.
  • All for Nothing: Elsa, Janeway, Doc, Karl, and Erhardt, among others, all end up dead because Szell was simply paranoid about his diamonds being stolen after he collected them. The final joke is on Szell. After being above the fray for everyone else's death, he ends up pissing off the wrong guy and loses both the diamonds and his life. For all their worth, most of the diamonds are lost in the bottom of the water treatment facility.
  • all lowercase letters: How the opening credits are presented.
  • Almost Dead Guy: A partial example, in that Doc can't manage to tell Babe anything, but everyone assumes he has.
  • Alter Kocker: The old Jewish man and road rage driver in the beginning. Ironically, he calls Klaus a "kocker" in their first exchange.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Although everyone who crossed him is dead, including Szell and his two thugs, and won't bother him anymore, Babe is essentially a broken mess, having lost his potential love interest and his brother, his possessions given away to distract the bad guys, and his brother's wristwatch sacrificed, and being battered, robbed, tired and confused, he goes off aimlessly; whether he graduates from his school or walks homeless and poor will never be known.
  • Ambiguously Gay: We see a scene of Hank talking on the phone in a flirty, romantic way, to someone named "Janey," and the dialogue seems to clearly indicate they are lovers. The way it's filmed, we're led to believe it's a woman. However, later in the film, when we're first introduced to Peter Janeway, he tells Babe to call him "Janey," as everyone else does, which pretty clearly seems to indicate that he and Hank were an item. However, nothing else in the film discusses or hints at this relationship. In the sequel, Hank seduces both men and women, so he could actually be bisexual, or he could just be really good at staying in character.
  • Argentina Is Nazi-Land: Well, Uruguay. That's where Szell has been for thirty years after the war.
  • Artistic License - Firearms: Babe has firearm training but occasionally holds his pistol like someone who has no idea how to do so.
  • Assassination Attempt: Szell sends an assassin to kill Doc because he fears Doc will steal Szell's diamonds after he collects them.
  • Bad Boss: Szell, in a fit of paranoia, orders his diamond couriers killed and even stabs one of them to death himself.
  • Bald of Evil: The evil Dr. Szell is famous for his head of thick white hair, so he shaves it down to male pattern baldness as his only disguise, which makes him look even more evil.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Twice in rapid succession. A Jewish woman recognizes Szell in the Diamond District and tries to call attention to him, unfortunately she's hit by a car, right afterwards, a different man confronts Szell directly, but Szell murders him before anyone else notices.
  • Barehanded Blade Block: Played with. An assassin who attacks Hank/Scylla in the opening of the film attempts to garotte Doc, but he gets a hand between the wire and his throat. The film plays this out completely straight, as we see Doc's hand get gorily torn up as the assassin uses all of his strength pull into the garrote on Doc's hand in an attempt to get it to Doc's throat.
  • Berserk Button:
    • The old Jewish man in the beginning is already pissed at Klaus, not being fond of Germans, but when Klaus confirms that he's a Nazi bastard, the Jewish man goes irrationally ballistic and chases him through town.
    • Doc isn't all that furious about Szell hiring a hitman to kill him, but is furious when he plants Elsa to get Babe to fall in love with her and thus tries to involve his brother in the business.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The car chase scene in the beginning, with brilliant insults in German and Yiddish being exchanged.
  • Bird-Poop Gag: A bird poops on Babe's tracksuit in the park while he's squiring Elsa around.
  • Bluff the Imposter: When Doc meets Babe's girlfriend Elsa and finds out that she's Swiss, he starts firing questions at her about Switzerland, which she answers adroitly. Then he reveals that he was making everything he said up, revealing that she's lying about who she is.
  • Book Ends: In the first and last shots of Babe, he's running by the Central Park Reservoir.
  • Bystander Syndrome: An ambulance ignores the half-naked Babe as he tries to flag it down, clearly in distress. To be fair to the driver, though, the medics have their own emergency to deal with.
  • Cassandra Truth:
    • When Elsa agrees to see Babe again, she warns him that things won't end like he wants them to. He ignores the warning and rejoices. In the end, it turns out that Elsa was actually spying on him, and she dies.
    • The old Jewish lady who recognizes Szell. Everybody in the area hearing her yell, "It's Szell!" thinks she's senile.
  • Catchphrase: "Is it safe?" for Dr. Szell.
  • Chalk Outline: Poor Doc's body is still lying on the floor of Babe's apartment, with the outline already having been drawn around him.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The Hispanic gang across the street who heckle Babe whenever he returns home. They later does a huge favor for Babe by breaking into Babe's apartment and retrieving the gun (the price is, the guy steals all Babe's stuff).
  • Chekhov's Skill: Babe is training to run marathons. Even though he's unable to beat local runners, he's good enough to outrun assassins who are chasing him.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Janeway. He lets Doc gets killed, then involves his brother, and willingly rats out Szell to Babe, only to attempt to kill him right after, killing Elsa when she warns Babe what he's doing. Luckily, Babe shoots him first.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Dr. Szell famously exploits his knowledge of dentistry to torment Babe via The Tooth Hurts.
  • Creepy Doll: An assassin hides a bomb in a doll inside a baby carriage. To make it super-creepy, the doll's eyes open right before the bomb goes off.
  • Cruel Mercy: Babe at first tells Szell he can only keep as many diamonds as he can swallow. Eventually Babe just throws the diamonds away and Szell ends up diving after them down a spiral metal staircase and impaling himself
  • Deadpan Snarker: Doc. One good example is when he invites Babe and Elsa to an expensive restaurant for dinner, and Babe shows up sans necktie and has to be provided one by the host.
    Doc: At least his fly is buttoned.
  • Decoy Protagonist: In the first act of the film, it cuts back and forth between Babe and Doc. This makes it seem like Doc is the deuteragonist of the film, which is supported by the fact that he's played by Roy Scheider. However, 45 minutes into the film, Doc dies.
  • Depraved Dentist: Dr. Szell, a dentist, uses the tools of his trade to torture Babe for information.
  • Doesn't Like Guns: In the novel, Doc feigns an antipathy for firearms in Babe's presence, in order to distance himself from his other persona.
  • The Dog Bites Back: After spending the whole film being chased and tortured to hell and back by Szell and his men, Babe decides to fight back and manages to destroy the man by attacking the thing he loves the most.
  • Double Agent: Janeway. He claims to be after Szell but reveals he's been working for him the whole time, and even let Szell kill Doc.
  • Escalating Brawl: An assassin tries to get the drop on Doc with a garrote, which progresses to Doc's hotel room getting thoroughly trashed Before Doc finally kills the assassin.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: One of Szell's henchmen turns his head away when Szell tortures Babe with his dental instruments.
  • False Reassurance: Szell's To the Pain speech starts with him reassuring Babe that he won't be drilling into a cavity... because that's a dying nerve, and live, freshly cut nerves are infinitely more sensitive.
  • Fatal Flaw: Szell's greed and paranoia. He puts himself in a lot of danger by murdering his couriers out of paranoia and deciding to get the diamonds personally. His refusal to believe that Babe really knows nothing eventually pushes him so far that he decides to fight back against Szell. When Babe throws his diamonds in the reservoir, he ends up tumbling down the stairs after them, eventually impaling himself.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Szell is downright fatherly with Babe... in between torture sessions.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: When Szell drills into Babe's teeth, the messiness is not directly shown
  • Government Agency of Fiction: Whatever agency Doc and Janeway work for.
  • Greedy Jew: Invoked. Szell walks through New York's diamond district, and his gaze lingers on numerous Jews who are all conducting business, buying things, or making sales. You can practically feel Szell's contempt. When a Jewish salesman gives him a slick sales pitch, Szell snaps and storms away.
  • Hate Sink: Szell and Janeway.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Szell falls down a staircase while chasing after the briefcase of diamonds and impales himself on his own knife blade.
  • Hope Spot: Multiple:
    • In the backstory, Szell swindled multiple rich Jewish people by convincing them that he would take them to a safe place if they paid him with everything they had — everything, including the gold in their tooth fillings, which Szell extracted personally — before leading them to the concentration camps.
    • Babe manages to escape Szell's torture, only to find out that the man that drives the car he jumped in is Janeway, The Mole working for Szell, who drives him back to Szell after asking a few questions.
    • One of Szell's former victims catches up to him, only to meet his retractable blade.
    • Szell gets one in-universe. He's collected the diamonds and is leaving the bank to go back and enjoy the rest of his years as a rich man, then when he gets outside he finds Babe has tracked him down and has a gun on him.
  • Improperly Paranoid: Both film and novel make it clear that Szell's paranoia is out of control, and he expects thieves and treachery at every turn. It's why he targets and eventually stabs Doc, because he's afraid Doc will attempt to rob him of his precious diamonds. Babe also suffers a lot because this paranoia makes it impossible for him (and thus, his minions) to believe that Henry wasn't able to provide Babe with any information as he died, instead pitifully drowning in his own blood in Levy's living room and thus keep interrogating him for a possible Dying Clue. When Szell finally DOES accept that Babe knows nothing, he decides that Babe still knows too much and attempts to have him killed.
  • In Love with the Mark: Elsa was sent to spy on Babe and becomes his girlfriend, but she falls in love with him for real. She still leads him to his expected death but later warns him when Janeway is about to ambush him, causing Janeway to kill her.
  • Infraction Distraction: Henry realises that his brother's new girlfriend Elsa Opel is lying about her past and accuses her of trying to find an American husband to get a green card. Turns out she's the daughter of the Big Bad and is spying on the brothers.
  • Interrogated for Nothing: It's made clear very early on that Szell will continue to torture Babe until he is sure that it's "safe", and nothing Babe can tell him will make him stop. Furthermore, he's torturing Babe to make absolutely sure that Babe isn't hiding any information that he truly doesn't know because Doc told him nothing as he died.
  • Ironic Echo: Babe confronts Szell at the climax of the movie with the words, "It's not safe."
  • Irony: Turns out it really is safe and Szell had no reason to be so paranoid. Unfortunately for him Babe, the guy he tortured to figure out if it is safe or not, turns up with a gun and three words.
    Babe: It's not safe.
  • I've Come Too Far: Janeway interrogates Babe aggressively to find out what he knows, even though Babe knows nothing. By the time he realizes Babe was telling the truth, Babe knows too much to be let go.
    Janeway: I don't think he knows anything. And I think he knows too much.
  • Jerk With A Heart Of Jerk: Janeway seems willing to let Babe get Szell by telling him where he is, only to attempt to shoot him afterwards.
  • Jews Love to Argue: A grouchy Jewish-American motorist engages in road rage with Szell's brother, which results in their deaths.
  • Jump Scare:
    • Szell stabbing Doc out of nowhere. Especially because, at that point, we have no idea that Szell carries a retractable blade up his sleeve, and because of the earlier fight scene, the audience is convinced that the older, weaker Szell is in no way a match to the well-trained Doc. The fact that Szell guts Doc as he's in the middle of a Precision F-Strike makes it all the more a shock to the audience.
    • Then later, The bloody, and pale from blood loss Doc, running purely on adrenaline, appearing at Babe's door like a zombie. Even Babe is shocked and freaked out by Doc's appearance.
    • Doc sending contact Nicole on past him because the meet site they were planning on isn't safe. She disappears into the black night, he hears an ominous noise, and when he calls for her, out of the pitch blackness, someone throws a soccer ball Doc's way. It's completely unexpected and jarring.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Poor Doc was about to tell Szell to kiss his ass when the doctor stabbed him with his hidden knife.
    Doc: May I be candid? I couldn't give a fuck about your...
  • Laser-Guided Karma: For all of the crap he put Babe through Szell finally get's his answer, "It's not safe" before Babe forces him to swallow a diamond and he accidentally kills himself trying to get the dropped diamonds.
  • Mad Doctor: Szell. The man was a Mengele-type torturer back when he worked for the Nazis and age hasn't done his sanity any favors.
  • Memento MacGuffin: The gun Babe's father used to shoot himself. Babe, who has kept it for 20-odd years, winds up using it in the final confrontation with the bad guys.
  • The Mole: More than one person is secretly working for Szell. Such as Doc's Agency boss.
  • Money Is Not Power: Szell's diamonds don't save him when he's face-to-face with an angry, vengeful, gun-toting Babe.
  • Monochrome Past: Babe's brief flashback to his father's suicide is filmed in a sepia tone.
  • Nazi Gold: The diamonds Szell obsesses over so much turn out to be Nazi property, and they're even purchased with gold stolen from desperate Jewish families that he scammed before killing.
  • Nazi Grandpa: Doctor Szell is kindly toward children who visit his dentist's office. He's less kindly to people who are in his care when he wants information from them.
  • Nazi Hunter: Unusually, one of them is a villain. Janeway is a member of a government organization that performs this function, who has decided to allow Szell to be free (and looks the other way with his other monstrous acts) as long as Szell provides information on any other fugitive associates of the Nazi regime that he knows about.
  • Neck Snap: Doc dispatches a would-be assassin this way.
  • Never Trust a Title: From the title, you might be expecting an inspirational sports film like Chariots of Fire . The marathon aspect plays into Babe's characterization (it gives him an unusually high pain tolerance and the ability to run like hell), but genre-wise the story is an espionage thriller from start to finish.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Szell's actions to ensure his safety only ensure that it is not safe.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Szell is loosely based on Josef Mengele. Funny, considering that Laurence Olivier played a Nazi Hunter determined to catch Mengele in the 1978 adaptation of The Boys from Brazil.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: After telling contact Nicole to keep on walking past him, she disappears into the darkness. After a brief moment, and an odd noise, Doc calls after her, only for a soccer ball to appear out of the darkness and fly towards him. Fearing Nicole has been killed, and completely unsettled by the experience, Doc gets the Hell out of there, fast.
  • Nothing Up My Sleeve: Szell has a retractable blade up his sleeve.
  • Oh, Crap!: The Reveal that Janeway is The Mole means Babe's escape has failed.
  • Post-Victory Collapse: Doc, lying on the floor and writhing in pain clutching his mangled right hand after killing an assassin.
  • Precision F-Strike: Doc: "I couldn't give a fuck about your—[stabbed]"
  • Professional Killer: Doc is one, and he uses his hands rather than a gun.
  • Red Right Hand: The assassin who tries to kill Doc in the first act has a blind eye.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Doc is sold out to Szell by Janeway at the film's halfway point and is mortally wounded.
  • Scenery Porn: The takes of Central Park and its reservoir are pretty nice.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Babe is offered a hefty amount of money by Szell during their final confrontation. He also literally throws a bag full of blood diamonds into the river rather than keep them for himself.
  • Sean Connery Is About to Shoot You: Or rather Dustin Hoffman is, on the poster shown above as well as the DVD cover.
  • Shout-Out: Goldman named Szell after longtime Cleveland Orchestra conductor George Szell.
  • Signature Line: "Is it safe?" The novel even makes it clear that it's Szell's Madness Mantra.
  • Skip the Anesthetic: The novel notes that Babe prefers to skip the Novocain when having dental work done: "[H]e hated the needles and the hours of numbness worse than the few minutes of actual discomfort." (When Szell has him, of course, he isn't even given the choice.)
  • Smug Snake: Janeway.
  • Strapped to an Operating Table: Try "Strapped to a Dentist's Chair and having your teeth drilled in without any painkillers for information".
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • Even if lucky enough to not die immediately, Doc still gets a sucking chest wound from Szell's retractable blade and spends his last moments with Babe gurgling out blood, so he cannot provide him with any important information. Much of the ensuing drama for Babe happens because his attempts to point this out are met with rampant paranoia and disbelief.
    • Also, in Doc's fight with the assassin early in the film. Doc manages to block a garotte from going around his throat with his hand, leading to it bleeding profusely and spraying blood on the walls and the white curtains to Doc's balcony. Also, when he attempts to use it in an attack without thinking, he reacts with incredible pain. While he uses the hand to grip the assassin as he breaks his neck, we see that it pretty much takes all of Doc's willpower for him to do it, and he falls against the foot of the bed clutching it painfully in the aftermath. Later, he's shown getting medical treatment for it, and it sports bandages of various sizes for the rest of Doc's screen time.
  • The Tooth Hurts: Szell even deliberately aims for healthy teeth so it will hurt much more for Babe.
  • This Is a Drill: The dental kind is utilized for torture.
  • Thwarted Escape: Babe is able to escape Szell's torture and hops onto Janeway's car to run away. Janeway drives around the block long enough to find out that Babe truly doesn't knows anything, and drops him back with Szell's men to allow the doctor to feel absolutely sure.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Babe at the end, managing to kill various enemy agents and gives Szell a pretty tortuous Karmic Death.
  • To the Pain:
    • "So, I'll just drill into a healthy tooth until I reach the pulp. That is unless, of course, you can tell me that it's safe."
    • "I'll let you keep as many as you can swallow."
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Janeway allowed his best agent to die just to keep his (supposedly) best source of information happy. Also, due to earlier dialogue in which Hank Levy is talking flirtatiously to "Janey" (Janeway's nickname) on the phone, it would also appear that Janeway sold out a man who was much more than just a professional colleague to Szell.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Szell's sanity was already on the brink because of his paranoia, but it comes to a head during the final scene where Babe forces him at gunpoint to swallow the diamonds, shouting in exasperation that what he's doing is madness. He briefly recomposes himself to mock Babe and say he can't actually bring himself to shoot and kill him, only to lose it again when he (Babe) throws the diamonds down the stairs of the reservoir, and in his desperation to get it back, trips and falls on his own blade.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Doc sees Nicole walk off down a dark alley and hears a thud-like sound. A moment later, a soccer ball is thrown or kicked towards him from the alley. We never find out exactly what happened to Nicole, but given what happened to LeClerc, it couldn't have possibly been good.
  • White Hair, Black Heart: Szell's nickname is "The White Angel" because of his hair.
  • We Do Not Know Each Other: After finding LeClerc killed, knowing he has a meeting with Nicole, he goes to the meeting site then tells her to keep going, as with LeClerc dead, the situation is not safe. She keeps walking past him, but it's strongly hinted that she met her demise after disappearing into the darkened night.
  • With My Hands Tied: Played with. Doc is very good with killing with his hands. When he gets one mangled stopping himself from being garroted, he's left with only one usable hand to ward off the assassin, putting him at a heavy disadvantage for much of the fight. He finally gets enough adrenaline to grip the assassin's throat with it and break his neck, but it very clearly causes him immense pain, and the fight ends with a virtual Post-Victory Collapse for Doc.
  • You Have to Believe Me!:
    • An old woman recognizes Szell on the street, but her shouts do little to convince the crowd to apprehend him.
    • Also, an elderly man in a balcony across from Doc sees the beginning of his fight with the assassin, and calls his nurse to tell her what's going on, but the fight has disappeared behind the closed curtains, and she sees nothing, so the old man gives up and resumes watching the street.
  • You Just Told Me: How Babe gets Elsa to admit she's working for Szell.
  • You Wouldn't Shoot Me: Szell says this to Babe when the latter refuses to pull the trigger. Babe responds by chucking what's left of the diamond stash into the reservoir.


Christian Szell 2

Christian Szell torturing a prisoner.

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