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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:

  • Affably Evil: Doc.
  • 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 lowercase letters: How the opening credits are presented.
  • Almost Dead Guy: A partial example, in that he can't manage to tell Babe anything, but everyone assumes he has.
  • Argentina Is Nazi-Land: Well, Uruguay. That's where Szell has been for thirty years after the war.
  • Bald of Evil: Dr. Szell's baldness makes him that much more creepy and intimidating.
  • Berserk Button: Doc isn't even too furious about Szell hiring a hitman to kill him, but is furious when he tries to involve his brother in the business.
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  • 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 his Swiss girlfriend around.
  • Bookends: In the first and last shots of Babe, he's running by the Central Park Reservoir.
  • Cassandra Truth: 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 is still lying on the floor of Babe's apartment, with the outline already having been drawn around him.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The Hispanic guy across the street who mocks Babe and calls him "Creepy". He 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 runs marathons, which has nothing to do with anything...until it's how he's able to outrun a bad guy and escape, even after Szell has mangled his mouth.
  • 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. 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. Szell ends up diving after them and impaling himself
  • Depraved Dentist: Dr. Szell, a dentist, uses the tools of his trade to torture Babe for information.
  • 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.
  • Dying Clue: Averted. Poor Doc spends his last moments pitifully gurgling on his one blood and lying in Babe's arms. All of the drama that Babe suffers afterwards is because Szell and the spy organization that has secreted him into the country are unable to believe that Doc didn't provided this, even after Babe continued to tell the truth under torture.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Doc works for Szell and is willing to ignore his crimes, but he does love his brother Babe, and is angry when Szell attempts to involve him.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: One of Szell's henchmen turns his head away, terrified, 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. 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
  • Hate Sink: Szell and Janeway.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: Subverted. Szell walks into the Diamond District, the most Jewish place in New York, and barely escaped being outed by two of his former victims.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Film only; 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.
  • 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. Babe 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.
  • 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 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 knows 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."
  • I've Come Too Far: Janeway interrogates Babe aggressively to find out what he knows, even though Bebe knows nothing. By the time he realizes Babe was telling the truth, Bebe knows too much to be let go.
  • 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 resulted in their deaths.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Poor Doc was about to tell Szell to kiss his ass when the doctor stabbed him with his hidden knife.
  • 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.
  • Never Trust a Title: From the title, you might be expecting an inspirational sports film like Chariots of Fire . The marathon aspect barely factors into the movie (other than justifying why Babe can run like hell so well), though, which 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 Boys from Brazil.
  • 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.
  • Precision F-Strike: "I couldn't give a fuck about your—[stabbed]"
  • 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.
  • Secret Test: When Doc meets Babe's girlfriend Elsa and finds out that she's Swiss, he starts firing questions at her, until he exposes her as a liar. She admits that she's from Germany before she stalks out.
  • 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.
  • 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 disbelieve.
  • 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.
  • Token Evil Teammate: Melendez is a burglar that Babe lets ransack his place in exchange for helping him with Szell's men.
  • 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."
  • Torture Is Ineffective: for the very simple reason that Babe knows nothing, Szell and Janeway waste a huge amount of time and effort in finding this out.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Janeway allowed one of his best agents to die just to keep his (supposedly) best source of information happy..
  • 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.
  • White Hair, Black Heart: Szell's nickname is "The White Angel" because of his hair.
  • 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.
  • 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.


Video Example(s):


Christian Szell 2

Christian Szell torturing a prisoner.

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