Marathon Man

These online essays about and track-by-track analyses of Marathon Man and The Parallax View supplement and extend the essays found in the booklet accompanying FSM’s CD release of these scores. The online notes are also available as a PDF file for more convenient printing.

The death of book editor Hiram Haydn in 1973 proved to be a turning point for screenwriter and novelist William Goldman. Goldman had worked with Haydn for 15 years, beginning with his third novel, Solider in the Rain, and he “worshiped” Haydn, seeing him as a father figure and later writing that he would have stayed with the editor “forever.” At the time, Goldman’s screenwriting career focused largely on highly commercial genre projects, most notably his Oscar-winning screenplay for 1969’s smash hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But his novels tended toward the realm of serious fiction—so much so that when he wrote his first thriller, No Way to Treat a Lady, Haydn told him, “I have no idea how to edit this. Why don’t you take it somewhere else and do it under a pseudonym?” Goldman took his advice, first publishing the novel under the pseudonym “Harry Longbaugh” (the given name of the Sundance Kid).

The Princess Bride, Goldman’s favorite of his own novels, was the final project Haydn edited for Goldman. When his editor passed on, the author was “shocked and saddened, didn’t know quite what I wanted to write, but I did know there was a world of material that I was fascinated with that I was never allowed to try when he was mentoring me.” Goldman was a fan of spy thrillers, especially the works of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene: “Of course you know you can’t reach that level, but hope is a thing with feathers and away you go.” Although he had at that point adapted his novel The Thing of It Is as an unproduced screenplay, overall he kept his movie and novel writing separate, including his planned spy thriller. “I had no intention or notion when I was writing that book that it was ever going to be a movie. Never ever ever.”

Goldman felt that a thriller must begin with its villain, so he conceived of a Nazi war criminal inspired by the real-life Dr. Josef Mengele, nicknamed “The Angel of Death,” who had conducted ghastly medical experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II. Goldman saw Mengele as “the most intellectually startling of the Nazis,” who was still alive in the 1970s, hiding in Paraguay. Goldman named his villain Christian Szell, after the Hungarian conductor George Szell (“Szell…just saying it made me feel sadistic”). It should be noted that George Szell was, as Time wrote in 1944, “a Jewish refugee from Nazi Europe and a fervent Hitler-hater” (although in the next sentence, the article did go on to say that “his outward manner suggests the average American idea of the typical Nazi”).

Goldman needed a logical and dramatic reason to bring his Nazi villain to 1970s New York. (“If I were English, he would have come to London, but I live in New York so here came Szell.”) Having read an article on a revolutionary heart operation performed by a doctor in Cleveland, he decided that Szell would come to America for lifesaving surgery, until he asked himself, “What kind of a thriller do you have if the villain is already dying?” Abandoning the surgery idea, Goldman then read an article on Nazis who got rich stealing gold from the teeth of prisoners. Inspired by the memory of a hated dentist from his childhood—who would pin the young Goldman down in the dental chair with his knee while working without anesthetic—the author made Szell a dentist who comes to the U.S. to retrieve a fortune in diamonds.

Goldman felt his hero needed to be “a total innocent,” and was particularly intrigued by the question, “What if someone close to you was something totally different from what you thought?” He made his protagonist a brilliant graduate student in history at Columbia University: Thomas Babington “Babe” Levy, a compulsive marathon trainer still haunted by the suicide of his blacklisted father. Babe is unaware that “Doc,” his beloved older brother, is actually an American spy with the code name “Scylla.” With a Nazi dentist as his villain, Goldman planned to feature a scene in which Babe undergoes dental torture at Szell’s hands and decided to give Babe a toothache early in the story to make the torture even more agonizing. Goldman asked his periodontist, “a genuinely kind and decent human being,” for advice, and the doctor suggested instead that Szell drill into a healthy tooth, describing with disturbing relish how “the level of agony would be unsurpassable. Death would be preferable. The memory of being destroyed in the chair would never leave you.” Goldman spent the summer of 1973 writing his novel, which he titled Marathon Man, in an Upper East Side office that his friend, director George Roy Hill, described as “scrofulous.” Unaware that he tended to read his scenes aloud as he wrote, the author alarmed a neighbor who heard Goldman loudly enacting the torture scene.

The novel arrived in bookstores at the beginning of 1974 and became a bestseller in hardback. The film rights sold to Paramount Pictures and producers Robert Evans and Sidney Beckerman for $500,000, with Goldman also signed to write the screenplay. Evans’s first choice to direct the film was John Schlesinger, who had specialized in small-scale character studies like Darling, Sunday, Bloody Sunday and his Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy, but who relished the chance to work in a new genre: “I simply adore thrillers. I love the complexities of this story and the task of creating the element of fantasy a thriller should have. That’s the fun part.” Schlesinger had also directed a segment of the Olympics documentary Visions of Eight titled “The Longest,” about marathon runners, and saw Marathon Man as a story about “pain, and the endurance of pain.”

Schlesinger worked closely with Goldman on the screenplay, particularly concerned with adding “texture” to the scenes, such as a recurring idea of “cities in crisis”—garbage strikes, luggage strikes, public demonstrations. Schlesinger incorporated inspirations from his location scouting trips; while walking through Manhattan with Goldman on Yom Kippur, he decided to set an opening car-crash sequence on the Jewish holiday—“the image of Jews rushing out, having a break from the shul, and rushing toward these burning vehicles. It had a sort of pertinence”—particularly since Schlesinger saw the film as a “Jewish thriller.” After witnessing Parisians observing a street demonstration from their balconies, he incorporated this element into a scene in which Doc is attacked in his Paris hotel room. Goldman simplified the parts of the novel that took place in Europe, condensing it to a Parisian section “which is not, believe me, a Shakespearean episode,” and added a murder at the opera: “Basically John’s an opera nut and he always wanted to shoot the Paris opera.”

Goldman may not have originally conceived Marathon Man as a movie, but the final script stayed largely faithful to his novel. The film, like the book, begins with the death of Szell’s brother in a fiery Manhattan car crash. This accident brings together the lives of three people: Babe, who is about to begin a romance with the beautiful Swiss student Elsa; the spy Doc, who discovers that the couriers for Szell’s diamonds are being killed off and that he may be next; and Szell himself, who travels incognito from Uruguay to New York to retrieve his gems. When Doc learns that Babe and Elsa have been mugged in Central Park by Szell’s goons, he travels to New York and tries to convince Babe that Elsa is not who she claims to be. Doc confronts Szell, who fatally stabs him, but the spy survives long enough to die in Babe’s arms. Peter Janeway, Doc’s colleague and (implied) lover, questions Babe, warning him that Szell’s men may come after him. Indeed, Szell’s goons abduct Babe and the Nazi doctor tortures him with dental tools, seeking the answer to a mysterious question: “Is it safe?” (for Szell to retrieve his jewels from the bank). Babe escapes and travels with Elsa (secretly one of Szell’s couriers) to the countryside, where a shootout with Janeway (who has been working with Szell) and Szell’s henchmen leaves everyone except Babe dead. Szell manages to gets his diamonds safely from the bank, but a gun-toting Babe confronts him, now telling him “It isn’t safe”—their final confrontation leaves Szell dead and his diamonds scattered in the Central Park Reservoir.

Goldman’s published screenplay features a framing device flashing forward to Babe being interrogated by the police after Doc’s murder, but the finished film drops this gimmick. The novel and screenplay also alert readers early on that Elsa is league with the villains, but the film only reveals this when Babe learns the truth. The screenplay’s ending underwent many revisions: Goldman preferred to have Babe kill Szell, although one of his drafts ended with Babe tearing up Szell’s passport and the Nazi committing suicide rather than letting the authorities arrest him. The filmmakers brought in Robert Towne (an Oscar-winner for Chinatown) to write a new version of the final scene, with Babe forcing Szell to eat his diamonds. Schlesinger was pleased with the new ending, which he saw as “Jacobean,” though Goldman felt it weakened Szell as a villain to have him perish by falling on his own knife.

Robert Evans’s top choice to play Babe was Dustin Hoffman. Schlesinger resisted the casting at first—he had hoped to cast an unknown, and the 38-year-old Hoffman was arguably too old to play a graduate student—but the star was eager to work with his Midnight Cowboy director again and Schlesinger relented. Women’s Wear Daily announced that Tony Curtis was set to play Doc, but the role went instead to Roy Scheider, fresh off the blockbuster success of Jaws.

Actor Michael York recommended Marthe Keller for the role of Elsa after seeing her on the Paris stage in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. The filmmakers flew to France to meet her, but according to Keller, “Nobody introduced themselves, so I didn’t know which one was John Schlesinger. So I lit up a cigarette and said, ‘I loved Midnight Cowboy,’ knowing the one who said ‘thank you’ would be John.” Evans flew Keller out to Los Angeles to test with Hoffman; the producer had no doubts about her acting, but wanted to make sure of the chemistry between his stars: “The worst thing you can do is to sign someone and discover the vibes between the players aren’t good.”

The role of Szell caused the most problems, although Evans knew whom he wanted from the start: Laurence Olivier. Illness had plagued Olivier during the mid-1970s, limiting the great actor to small roles, such as Professor Moriarty in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Olivier was willing to play Szell, but his ailing health made it uncertain whether the studio could insure him for the film. Knowing that the filmmakers wanted Olivier, Richard Widmark visited Schlesinger and Goldman at Schlesinger’s London home to read for the role. Goldman later described Widmark’s audition as “frightening” and “sensational,” but Evans was later able to convince Lloyds of London to insure Olivier for six weeks—and only six weeks—of filming.

The cast began two weeks of rehearsals with Schlesinger and Goldman on September 15, 1975, in Manhattan’s Huntington Hartford Theater. Goldman reported that no one was eager to ask Olivier about shaving his head, as the role required, but at the first rehearsal Olivier himself asked, “Would it be possible for me to be shaved bald now? I think it might be best to get it done.” Schlesinger suggested that Szell should have a moustache, but Olivier instead thought the director “should use to the maximum my mean little mouth.” Olivier was inspired in his portrayal by watching the gardener at Robert Evans’s home: “The care he took pruning each branch. The delicacy of his touch. That is how I shall torture Dustin.”

Schlesinger emphasized during rehearsals that the cast would need to make their performances believable to counteract the larger-than-life nature of the story, to “play it as if it’s Chekhov: so seriously, so truthfully, so realistically.” William Devane, cast as Janeway, explained to Goldman his views on rehearsing with Olivier. “This is rehearsal. It’s nothing. When the camera starts to roll, he’ll give me a little of this, he’ll give me a little of that, and you’ll never know I’m in the movie. No one’s going to be watching me—that’s Olivier, man.” Goldman felt the “most memorable incident of my movie career” came when Olivier, “the actor of the century,” called him “Bill” and asked his permission to make a slight change in a line of dialogue. For Goldman, that was “high cotton.” The low point for Goldman came after an otherwise successful first reading of the script, when the man hired as the film’s dentistry adviser remarked, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but frankly I have a lot of problems with the screenplay.” Goldman screamed at him, “You’re here for teeth. Leave the goddam script alone,” and later wrote, “If I’d had a gun and thought I could get away with it, the guy was dead.”

Filming began in Paris on October 3, 1975, on a $6.5 million budget. The production moved to New York City for five weeks of filming beginning on October 17, including such locations as Central Park and Columbia University. Schlesinger discovered that while Hoffman liked to improvise to discover new approaches to a scene, Olivier preferred to memorize the script as written and remain faithful to it. For scenes in which Hoffman needed to be sweaty or exhausted, he would find a place near the set to run laps—and in locations that rendered this impractical, he had a personal sauna on hand. Hoffman’s need to be genuinely exhausted for a scene inspired the most famous quote that emerged from the production of Marathon Man, attributed to Olivier and repeated by many of the film’s participants, with the older actor asking, “Why doesn’t he just try acting?” Hoffman confirms that Olivier said it, but insisted that it was merely a joke between the two stars, admitting that some of his exhaustion actually came from ’70s-style partying. Makeup effects artist Dick Smith, who had worked with Hoffman on several films, including Midnight Cowboy and Little Big Man, designed a dental appliance for Hoffman that made him appear younger and kept his teeth looking consistent before and after the torture scene. Smith also created memorable gore effects, such as a garrote wound on Scheider’s hand during the hotel fight and the throat cutting of a diamond merchant.

Schlesinger and his crew filmed a memorable sequence in which Szell finds himself stalked by Auschwitz survivors in the actual Manhattan diamond district, but had to reschedule the filming to a Saturday, when shops were closed, because the real jewelers tended to walk into the frame and look at the camera. For the opening car-crash sequence, the effects crew did a test explosion on City Island in Long Island Sound, with three fire chiefs and two bomb squad members on hand. The actual sequence was staged two days later, on Halloween afternoon, on East 91st Street in Manhattan, but as New York magazine reported, the on-camera explosion was a disappointment—“instead of shooting to the sky, the flames burn gently, politely, limply”—so Schlesinger asked editor Jim Clark to carefully structure the scene to make the blast look more impressive. Another minor mishap occurred when filming a scene in which Janeway chases Babe over a pile of dirt in lower Manhattan. Reaching for Hoffman, Devane accidentally got too close and pulled down Hoffman’s pajama bottoms, exposing his bare backside to the onlookers.

Schlesinger’s strongest memory of making the film was of working with Olivier, “this great stage and screen actor, who’d been very sick for quite a long time, getting better with every day he worked. The relish he had for the role and for working was quite moving.” Schlesinger discovered the star’s self-deprecating side, as when the director tried to tone down Olivier’s acting by asking him to make the scene more “intimate,” with Olivier replying, “You mean cut off the ham fat, dear boy?”

Filming concluded in the Los Angeles area during January 1976, with the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia doubling for Uruguay and the fatal argument between Doc and Szell unfolding at the Arco Plaza in downtown L.A. in front of Herbert Bayer’s distinctive 1973 sculpture “Double Ascension.” The interior of a pump station at the Central Park Reservoir—the site of Babe and Szell’s final confrontation—was actually a $135,000 set designed by Richard MacDonald, built in Stage 15 on the Paramount Pictures lot.

Schlesinger described the six months he spent editing the film with Jim Clark as “the most fascinating period I’ve ever spent in film. We really had a wonderful time trying things. A few inches can make a difference as to whether a scene works or doesn’t in this kind of film. You can manipulate it so.” He was particularly impressed with producer Robert Evans’s attention to detail during the process. “On a piece of dub he might say, ‘Don’t have the breathing there because it’ll be more frightening if you just have the door creaks,’ or, ‘You might want more door creaks earlier.’”

The film had its first, successful sneak preview in what the filmmakers described as “Clint Eastwood country,” but a second preview, held in San Francisco, proved much more problematic. According to Clark, “I guess it was the politics of the people of San Francisco coupled with the fact that the air conditioning had broken down. It was hot as hell in there and whenever there was violence on the screen people were shouting ‘Fascist rubbish!’ and things like that.”

Schlesinger felt that “instead of turning on to the emotions, audiences were turning off to the effects of the violence.” He decided to make significant cuts in the more violent scenes, removing the gory shots of Szell’s fountainside disemboweling of Doc and significantly trimming the dental torture of Babe, losing graphic inserts filmed by Clark. Most significantly, Schlesinger eliminated Scheider’s original introduction, a scene retained from the novel in which Doc loses control and kills two assassins after they murder another veteran agent. For Goldman, this was a “grievous” cut, as the original scene established Doc’s vulnerability, showing him as “a guy who’s dead but won’t lie down” and giving Doc’s scenes with Babe a stronger emotional subtext. “Without that eight-and-a-half-minute scene, you see a superstud.”

Marathon Man premiered in U.S. theaters in October 1976, ultimately grossing $21 million and earning generally strong reviews. Jay Cocks in Time called it “the year’s most cunning entertainment,” and Judith Crist in Saturday Review went even further, describing it as “a film of such rich texture and density, so fascinatingly complex in its unfolding, so engrossing in is personalities, and so powerful in its performance and pace that the seduction of the senses has physical force…a potential neo-classic of the thriller genre.”

Goldman’s screenplay and Schlesinger’s direction earned suitable praise, but the stars received the majority of the raves for the film. Cocks felt that Hoffman gave one of his best performances, and John Simon in New York regarded his performance in the torture scene as “the perfect blend of agony and comic absurdity that characterizes nightmares.” Richard Corliss in New Times especially appreciated his work in the kidnapping scene, the way “the naked Hoffman makes the difficulty he has trying to put on his pajama bottoms into a tense, hilarious ballet of klutzy hysteria.”

Roy Scheider also garnered strong reviews, with Gordon Gow in Films & Filming praising his “quiet, shrewd, enlivening, enthralling performance…which…comes very close, in minimal time, to stealing the show,” and John Simon felt he played the role “with extraordinary authenticity,” and was an actor who “unerringly hits the true note of humanity even among hoked-up circumstances.” But it should come as no surprise that Laurence Olivier received the most attention from the critics. Reviewers such as Ray Loynd in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner (“Olivier makes a two-beat horror role resonant with his art”) and A.D. Murphy in Variety (“Olivier gives an A-budget version of what George Zucco did in hundreds of formula programmers”) noted how the star transcended the pulpy nature of his role, while John Simon went into great detail, praising the actor’s “combination of petty shrewdness, stolidity, and querulous self-pity…refreshingly different from the usual arrogant demon; welcome, too, are the less-Prussian-than-usual accent and the wonderfully realized walk in which military bearing has begun to crumble into shards of senile stiffness.” Olivier earned the film’s only Oscar nomination, for Supporting Actor (the film was also short-listed for Conrad Hall’s cinematography), and the film marked a resurgence in both his health and career—two years later he earned a Best Actor nomination for another international thriller, The Boys from Brazil, this time portraying a Jewish hero while Gregory Peck played a Nazi antagonist, none other than Josef Mengele (Goldman’s model for Szell).

Goldman envisioned his story as a spy thriller, but three decades later the film version of Marathon Man plays more like a horror film, and an exceptionally effective one. The political elements of the story—Nazi war crimes, McCarthyism—may have less contemporary relevance than they did in the mid-’70s, but the nightmarish elements of the story remain as powerful as ever. The film feels surprisingly contemporary, from the road-rage incident that begins the story (long before the term “road rage” even existed) to the desaturated color in the flashbacks of Babe’s childhood. The dental torture sequence was the film’s most notorious element at the time of its release—so much so that Goldman says he witnessed audience members leave in droves for the lobby in order to miss it—but Olivier’s repeated question “Is it safe?” may be even better remembered today, arguably one of the most quoted lines of ’70s cinema. Babe’s late-night abduction is even more chilling than the torture scene, and the moment when Janeway brings Babe back to his captors after his “rescue” is a brilliant (and oft-imitated) twist. Schlesinger does a masterful job in directing the suspense and action scenes—particularly impressive for someone who had never worked in the genre before—and his determination that the actors should play their roles “truthfully” and “realistically” pays off beautifully, as Hoffman’s utter conviction plays perfectly against Olivier’s understated menace.

Goldman brought Babe Levy back one more time for a sequel novel, Brothers, published in 1987. Surprisingly, Goldman also brought back Doc—not dead, as Marathon Man would have had us believe, but kept alive by sci-fi means—but the book, Goldman’s final novel to date, proved to be a disappointment and has gone unfilmed. —