Marathon Man

John Schlesinger saw Marathon Man as a story about “pain, and the endurance of pain,” and conveyed this impression to composer Michael Small. Over his three decades of scoring for film and television, Small (who died in 2003) worked in nearly every genre, including comedy, romance, western, science fiction and documentary, but it is his scores for the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s and ’80s for which he is best remembered. His elegantly sinister music provides the perfect accompaniment for an era during which many Americans felt as much fear of their government as they did about ordinary criminals.

Small’s career as a musical stylist for free-floating paranoia began with his score for the Oscar-winning Klute, and continued with his work on such thrillers as The Stepford Wives, Rollover and The Star Chamber. His music for Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 assassination conspiracy thriller The Parallax View remains one of his most acclaimed works, and Schlesinger used cues from its score in his temp track for Marathon Man, admitting that he asked Small to “really rip himself off.”

The theme Small introduces in the main title sequence for Babe obsessively running laps around the Central Park Reservoir—intercut with shots of Szell’s brother at a bank—dominates the score. According to Small, “I needed to find a motif that would go with these shots in a very rhythmic way. I felt that the score needed music that had the pulse of a man running. In fact the sound effect of his feet is the ‘rhythm track.’” In the opening titles, Small also introduces a musical effect created by his keyboardist, Ian Underwood, which Small described as “a kind of a scream which went not only with terror and torture but also with the limits pushed by being a marathon runner.”

Small was particularly happy with the “skewered anthem” he wrote for a scene in which Szell arrives in New York, and one of the most striking elements in his score is the use of a 12-tone row—“the first and last time I have gone this route.” He felt that the use of the row gave “a felt unity (because the notes are the same) between the heavy running sequences and the sparkly sounds when Hoffman throws the diamonds down the drain at the end.” Small creates striking variations of his row, especially the nightmarish rendition when Babe discovers that the seemingly helpful Janeway has actually delivered him back to his torturer.

Mainstream film critics remarked upon the score favorably, especially Arthur Knight, who reviewed the film for both Westways and The Hollywood Reporter. In the latter publication, he went into particular detail about the music, opining: “No less helpful is Michael Small’s score, with its ominous chords when we see Olivier, its romantic piano theme when Hoffman is seen with Keller.” Schlesinger himself felt that the score “worked so beautifully,” and Small admitted that the success of the film and its music kept him working steadily in Hollywood for another decade. — 

1. Main Title 1M1RY
The film opens with archival footage of marathon champion Abebe Bikila from the 1964 Olympics. Small provides an air of tension with pitch-bending strings, bell tree and “screaming” electronics for the subsequent main title sequence, which unfolds as graduate student Thomas Babington “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) jogs around the Central Park Reservoir. The composer then introduces three of the score’s key ideas in quick succession: a grave pulse for strings and harp, a chromatic figure for strings and woodwinds, and Babe’s bleak melody, sounding first on electric piano before the orchestration broadens. The material creates intrigue as the film cuts back and forth between Levy’s training and a sinister, elderly German man (Ben Dova) retrieving a case from a safe-deposit box. The cue fades after the German slips the case to a passerby outside the bank.
2. Tragedy at the Truck 1M3
The German’s car stalls in the middle of the street, leading to an argument with an irritated Jewish driver, Rosenbaum (Lou Gilbert), stuck behind him. Their bigoted altercation escalates into a darkly humorous chase through Manhattan; the score signals impending doom with a low-register grunting figure as they unwittingly bear down on a fuel truck that backs into the street in front of them. The material climaxes as both cars crash into the truck, causing an explosion.
As a crowd forms around the flaming vehicles, the German convulses and drops his key to the safe-deposit box before dying. Small underlines the severity of the crash and the significance of the German’s passing by introducing two more recurring ideas: an airy “death” sustain for pitch-bending strings, joined by vibraphone and electronics, and a leaping figure on piano that suggests forthcoming material for the film’s chief villain. Babe’s theme anticipates a cut back to Central Park, where he continues to jog.
3. In Hot Pursuit/Out of the Race 1M4/1M5
As Babe attempts to catch up to an antagonistic jogger, Small captures his frustration with a harsh soundscape of electronics, harp, piano and percussion. Babe eventually gives up the chase and leans against a chain-link fence, the film cutting back to footage of Bikila.
4. Bellman and Pram 2M1/2M2
At a hotel in France, Babe’s older brother, “Doc” (Roy Scheider), an American secret agent, flirts with his colleague Janeway (William Devane) over the phone. Strings linger with suspicion after a bellman enters the room attempting to hang a suit that does not belong to Doc in the closet. When the film cuts to Doc arriving via cab at a flea market, the score continues to offer quiet menace with variations on both the taunting figure from the “Main Title” and Babe’s theme. A creepy 15-note piano motive—almost but not strictly serial—wanders as someone pushing a baby carriage and another mysterious figure, Chen (James Wing Woo), spy on Doc before the agent steps into a shop to deliver diamonds to a courier, LeClerc (Jacques Marin).
5. The Doll’s Demise 2M3
Small reprises his suspenseful material from “Bellman and Pram” as Doc returns to his cab. His unseen pursuer has positioned the baby carriage—which contains a “sleeping” doll—behind the vehicle. The cue concludes when the doll’s eyes open, triggering an explosion that leaves Doc startled but unharmed.
6. Biesenthal Flashback 3M1
At Columbia University, Babe discusses the topic of his doctoral thesis, “The Use of Tyranny in American Political Life,” with Professor Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver), who needles him about including the McCarthy hearings in his writing. A cold 12-note (but not 12-tone) motive sounds on harp and synthesizer over an unnerving sustain as Levy flashes back to his childhood and relives his discovery of his historian father’s suicide due to being blacklisted as a Communist.
7. Soccer Ball 3M3
After Doc discovers LeClerc’s throat-slashed corpse at an opera house, he waits at night in a deserted courtyard to rendezvous with fellow agent Nicole (Nicole Deslauriers). When she arrives, he orders her to keep walking:”It’s not safe.” Once she proceeds past him and disappears through a gate, Doc hears a thud; he calls her name, but she fails to answer. Instead, a lone soccer ball comes bouncing towards him out of the darkness. The taunting figure and the creepy piano motive create a shroud of terror before Doc flees the scene.
8. Elsa’s Intrigue 4M1
While researching at a library, Babe meets a Swiss beauty named Elsa (Marthe Keller). After she leaves, he chases after her to return a book she left behind. Small intended this unused, flowing rendition of Babe’s theme for electric piano, harp and strings to sound as he catches up with her near her apartment building and convinces her to see him again.
9. Szell Arrives 4M3
After an unscored scene introducing Nazi dentist Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), during which he cuts off his hair, the creepy piano motive underscores “Der Weisse Engel” (The White Angel) departing his Uruguayan hideout via speedboat.
10. Love Scene 5M1
A setting of Babe’s theme for romantic piano and lush strings plays through a montage of him falling in love with Elsa; after she times him while he jogs around the reservoir, the film transitions to the couple making love, with the cue acting as phonograph source music. The piece wanders into rhapsodic, dissonant territory for a segue to the couple in Central Park, where they are mugged by Szell’s henchmen, Karl (Richard Bright) and Erhard (Marc Lawrence). A tortured, climactic reading of Babe’s theme (2:15–2:28) was cut from the mugging, causing the cue to end prematurely in the film.
11. The Letter 5M2
Babe’s theme returns on electric piano as he writes a letter to Doc, telling him about the mugging and that he feels angry enough to kill the men responsible. His narration of the letter continues through flashback footage of him cleaning Elsa’s wounds and returning home after the attack; outside his apartment, some local hooligans torment him.
12. Airport 5M3
For Szell’s arrival at Kennedy airport, the grave pulse from the “Main Title” joins with the leaping figure from “Tragedy at the Truck” and Small’s introduction of the Nazi’s “skewered anthem” on horns once he meets up with Karl and Erhard.
13. Resemble Diamonds 6M1
Doc joins his brother and Elsa for lunch at an upscale New York restaurant; Babe is unaware that Doc is a spy and believes him to be a successful businessman. Suspicious of Elsa, Doc subtly harasses her, going so far as to mention diamonds. Small intended this cue featuring the creepy piano motive amid bell tree flourishes—evoking “sparkly” diamonds—for Elsa reacting to Doc’s comment, but the finished film instead tracks in the 12-note motive from “Biesenthal Flashback.”
Fountain Appointment 6M2
When Doc exposes Elsa as a liar, she becomes indignant and runs from the table with Babe chasing after her. A grave pedal enters for Doc left alone at the table, before the film cuts to a deserted fountain at night, where Small develops Szell’s anthem, expanding it with a corrupted, more chromatic B section as the Nazi and his henchman Erhard await “Scylla” (Doc’s code name); the cue dissipates with low-end grunting as Doc arrives and confronts Szell.
14. Scylla Stabbed 6M3
Szell questions whether it is safe for him to retrieve his diamonds from the bank (the elderly German from the beginning of the film was Szell's brother). Doc refuses him a direct answer and In the midst of their heated exchange, Doc’s facial expression suddenly changes to one of wide-eyed shock: The “death” sustain sounds before it is revealed that Szell has thrust a retractable blade into the agent’s belly. Squealing electronics, piano and bass flutes add disturbing color as Szell leaves Doc for dead. The finished film dials out the cue’s final 0:55 of textural dread after a transition to Babe at his apartment apologizing for Doc’s behavior to Elsa over the phone. He screams when his mortally wounded brother arrives and collapses in his arms.
15. Doc Dies 6M4
Small intended this (unused) bittersweet solo piano reading of Babe’s theme to play for him cradling Doc in his arms before the agent dies.
16. Nightmare of the Past 7M1
After the police interrogate Babe, Janeway informs him that Doc was actually a spy for a government agency, “The Division.” He asks Levy to act as bait to draw out Doc’s killers, believing they will come looking for him to find out if Doc told him anything before he died.
The film transitions to Babe taking a bath. As he covers his face with a washcloth, childhood flashbacks show him with his brother and their disgraced father (along with a disturbing shot of adult Doc clutching his bleeding stomach). Small scores the montage with a reprise of the 12-note motive, mixed with a statement of Babe’s theme.
17. Bathroom Terror 7M2
Babe locks himself in his bathroom when he detects intruders in his apartment. In this unused cue, the creepy piano motive repeats over ominous pedal point for the intruders attempting to break through the bathroom door while Babe screams for help. He eventually panics and runs out the bathroom door, with the material accelerating as Szell’s henchmen apprehend him and dunk him in the bathtub.
18. False Rescue 8M1
At Szell’s warehouse hideout, the Nazi tortures Babe with dental instruments, digging into one of his cavities and repeatedly asking the infamous question, “Is it safe?” Afterward, Karl brings the student to a bed and provides him with a topical anesthetic for his teeth. Small indented a light, suspenseful passage that references the taunting figure to sound as Babe spots Janeway entering the warehouse and sneaking up behind Karl; the finished film replaces this material with music from a forthcoming cue, “The Recognition.” “False Rescue” is dialed back into the film with frantic electronic readings of the creepy motive joined by alarm-like string clusters and snare drum punctuation as Janeway knifes Karl in the back. The material continues as the agent ushers Babe from the warehouse, shooting Erhard along the way. The cue ends with a fateful reading of Babe’s theme that plays against the creepy motive as Janeway loads Babe into his car and speeds off into the night.
19. Betrayal 8M2
While Babe cowers in the back seat, the agent speeds around town, explaining Szell’s Nazi history and his plan to retrieve the diamonds from the bank. When Janeway asks Babe to come clean and reveal what Doc told him, the student insists: “Nothing!” This prompts the frustrated agent to pull back up to the warehouse, with the creepy motive crying out over whining clusters and col legno effects as Karl and Erhard emerge from a door, alive and well! The traitorous Janeway watches the henchmen carry a screaming Babe back inside, to a fleeting statement of Babe’s theme.
Drilling Horror 9M1
During a second torture session, Szell drills into one of Babe’s healthy teeth. In the film, Szell’s drill and Babe’s agonized screaming nearly drown out a percussive pulse and a searing swell of electronics.
20. Escape 9M2
After Szell deems Babe useless, Karl and Erhard prepare to load him into their car in the alley outside the warehouse. Agitated strings and percussion accents sound as Babe seizes an opportunity to escape, slamming Erhard with the car door and dashing barefoot down the alley. Sporadic stings for percussion and synthesizer follow for Babe unsuccessfully trying to flag down an ambulance. The final two stings do not appear in the finished film.
21. Chase Pt. I 9M3
As Janeway chases Babe through a deserted neighborhood, sporadic percussion and electronics join with fitful atonal writing that incorporates the taunting figure and frantic readings of the creepy motive. Harsh strings, screaming synthesizer and a suffering trumpet solo signal Babe remembering Bikila once again, with the film cutting to archival footage of the marathon champion. The fitful chase material returns as Babe climbs over a heap of rubble, losing Janeway in the process.
22. Chase Pt. II 9M4
After Szell’s henchmen pick up Janeway in their car, pummeling percussion and whining strings mark a cut to Babe running on a highway onramp. As the villains’ car bears down on Babe, the score spirals out of control with furious, unstable developments of the creepy motive, climaxing as Babe escapes his pursuers by leaping off a railing and onto an adjacent highway.
23. Urgent Phone Call 9M5
Janeway and Karl scan the roadway for Babe but he has vanished. Eerie strings and harp mix with cautious developments of Babe’s theme for a transition to him arriving via cab at a payphone down the street from his apartment and trades his brother’s Rolex to the cabbie for a dime. Small intended an unused passage (1:10–1:40) of dry string sustains and percussive grunting to underscore Levy calling Elsa for help.
24. Calculated Risk 9M6
The composer reprises thematic material from “Bellman and Pram” as Levy sneaks down the street and sees Szell’s henchmen parked in front of his apartment. He makes his way into a building across the street and uses the intercom to summon Melendez (Tito Goya), the leader of the neighborhood hooligans who routinely taunt him.
Gang Moves In 10M2
Melendez and his friends agree to “rob” Babe’s apartment and bring him his gun and clothes. The grunting figure from “Tragedy at the Truck” sounds as they make their way across the street into Babe’s building with Szell’s henchmen watching from their car. The suspenseful material continues as the gang sneaks upstairs and begins to pick the lock on Babe’s door. Janeway, staked out in the stairwell, confronts them with his pistol but the punks reveal weapons of their own. Outmatched, the agent relents.
25. House on the Hill 10M3
Babe meets up with Elsa and she drives him out of town. A cold, flowing rendition of Babe’s theme underscores their arrival at Elsa’s country house, where Babe forces her to confess that she works for Szell and holds her hostage.
Approaching Showdown 10M4
As they await the villains’ arrival, Elsa clarifies that she is only a courier for Szell; a delicate piano statement of Babe’s theme plays over a troubled string sustain when he answers her confession with, “God, you’re pretty.” The grunting figure alternates with stark percussion as the villains’ car approaches, with pungent readings of the creepy motive sounding as Levy holds Elsa at gunpoint near the front door and applies anesthetic to his teeth. The cue dissipates as Janeway and Szell’s henchmen step out of the car and confront Babe.
After admitting them to the house, Babe goes on to kill Karl and Erhard in self-defense; caught off guard, Janeway identifies the bank from which Szell will retrieve his diamonds. Once Babe flees the premises, Janeway grabs his gun, prompting Elsa to scream out and warn Babe. Just as the agent kills her, Babes reappears in the window and guns him down in return.
26. Jewelry Market Pt. I 11M1
Szell’s anthem builds tension as the Nazi walks through the 47th Street diamond district, observing countless Jews along the way. The cue continues with the anthem’s B section as Szell uncomfortably steps into a jewelry store in an attempt to determine the value of his diamonds.
27. Market Continuation 11M2
The anthem’s accompanimental material returns after Szell barks at an unhelpful clerk and leaves the shop. As he crosses the street to visit another store, an elderly Jewish woman (Lotte Palfi Andor) seems to recognize him.
28. The Recognition 11M3
In the second store, Szell learns the value of the diamonds but is also recognized by one of the salesmen, a Holocaust survivor. Dissonant string sustains and a grunting percussive figure follow the Nazi back outside, where the elderly Jewish woman across the street—another survivor—begins to call out Szell’s name in disbelief. In one of the film’s most famous sequences, she chases after Der Weisse Engel with her hysterics attracting a crowd of bystanders as the Nazi continues down the street, attempting to maintain his composure. Deliberate, horrified statements of the creepy motive sound as the woman follows him, with the material turning chaotic as she runs into the street and a taxi nearly runs her down.
29. Szell Escapes 11M4
As the crowd tends to the elderly woman, the jewelry salesman catches up with Szell and confronts him on the street (the finished film tracks the concluding section of “Szell Escapes” over this footage). Gruesome readings of the creepy motive sound when Der Weisse Engel slashes the man’s throat with his retractable blade; Szell calls out for help before hopping into a cab. Another crowd forms around Szell’s victim as the taxi drives off, a pathos-ridden development of Szell’s anthem mixing with the creepy motive for the Nazi re-holstering his blade and taking his brother’s key from his briefcase. The film transitions to the bank, where piano statements of the creepy motive sound over low-register grunting as a guard retrieves the safe-deposit box for Szell.
30. All That Glitters Pt. I 11M5
In a private room inside the vault, Szell retrieves a can from the box and pours a mound of diamonds onto the desk before him. A shimmering setting of the creepy motive sounds on upper-register piano, surrounded by bell tree flourishes as the Nazi caresses the jewels and laughs, unable to contain his excitement.
All That Glitters Pt. II 11M6/12M1
A bank guard checks on Szell after his excited outburst. After the Nazi dismisses him, the shimmering piano and bell tree return as he pours out more diamonds.
31. Too Close 12M3
Szell leaves the bank with his briefcase full of diamonds, but Babe confronts him almost immediately, escorting the Nazi him to Central Park at gunpoint. They enter a Reservoir pump room, where Szell opens his briefcase and presents Babe with the diamonds.
Small intended this unused, tension-filled setting of the creepy motive’s first six notes to sound as Szell approaches Babe on a pump room catwalk. Babe levels his gun on Der Weisse Engel and forces him to stop before he can get close enough to knife him.
Essen 12M4
The composer intended this second unused setting of the creepy motive’s opening pitches to play as Babe tells Szell that he can keep as many diamonds as he can swallow.
32. Diamonds of Death 12M5
Szell swallows one diamond but refuses to eat more, instead spitting in Babe’s face. When younger man smacks the Nazi in return—dropping his gun in the process—the score erupts with agitated strings and percussion. Szell lunges for the student with his blade and Babe snatches up the open case of diamonds, with the creepy motive unfolding deliberately through a standoff until Babe tosses the case down some stairs; the cue responds with queasy sustains and percussive accents as Szell panics and goes tumbling after his precious diamonds. At the bottom of the stairs, the “death” sustain wafts with irony as Szell, having impaled himself, slowly pulls his blade from his own stomach and collapses dead into the water.
33. Babe Tosses Gun 12M6/12M7
Szell’s B material sounds on bass flutes, trumpet and strings for Babe watching Der Weisse Engel’s corpse float in the water below, alongside the diamonds. Babe’s attention drifts to his gun resting on the walkway before him; he retrieves the weapon and tosses it into the reservoir outside, the cue reaching a harsh climax just before the gun hits the water. Although the nightmare has ended, Babe’s theme haunts him on solo trumpet as he walks off lost in thought.
34. End Credits 12M8
As Babe disappears into the distance, a typically plaintive setting of his melody plays through the end credits over a shot of New York’s skyline. —