What Happened to Marathon Man?

In 1976, Paramount released “Marathon Man”, a film based on William Goldman’s best selling novel.  The cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Roy Schieder, Laurence Olivier, Marthe Keller, and William Devane.

Original Movie Posters, Lobby cards, Film Memorabilia

PLOT.  Briefly, the story concerns a graduate student (Dustin Hoffman as Thomas Babington Levy nicknamed “Babe”) who inadvertently becomes involved in a spy drama.  His brother (Roy Scheider as “Doc”/”Scylla”) works as a courier for “The Division”.  Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) is a former Nazi dentist who seeks to retrieve a cache of diamonds locked in a safety deposit box in New York City, but can’t until he knows:  “Is it safe?”

CHANGES FROM BOOK TO SCREEN.  There are several key sequences that were cut or altered prior to the film’s debut.

Doc/Scylla is the Division’s top agent until he becomes a loose cannon.  He kills two agents (unauthorized) for killing off a former colleague.  Doc/Scylla loses it, when he see how his friend was killed – in a toilet stall, with his toupee left behind.  Before he kills them, he screams “Is that the way you’d want to go…on the squat?!”  The eight minute murder sequence was cut after a negative sneak preview in San Francisco.  Unfortunately, it leaves a plot hole.  Why does the Division want Doc/Scylla killed?  This is now left unanswered.

Another scene that was trimmed were some grisly close-up shots of Szell carving up one of his enemies.

Additionally, “Babe” is tortured with an dentist’s drill in order to find out what he knows about Szell’s diamonds.  These scenes were shortened.

Conclusion.  Originally, author Goldman intended for “Babe” to shoot Szell, throw the diamonds away and then be arrested.  Robert Towne was hired to rewrite this, so that Szell accidently kills himself with his own wrist blade.  “Babe” escapes without consequences.  Hoffman requested the new ending, saying he didn’t think “Babe” could shoot Szell.  “I’m a Jew,” explained Hoffman.  Dustin Hoffman is probably ten years too old to be playing this part, but a studio needs bankable stars.  If you don’t think about it too much, it won’t bother you.

Roy Schieder (“Doc”) nearly steals the film, he’s that good.  It’s his best role and I’m surprised he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, as Olivier was.

Laurence Olivier, (afflicted with numerous illnesses at the time), gives a remarkable performance of controlled evil.  Based, in part, on the real Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele, Olivier as Szell is cultured, refined and  capable of killing anyone at a moment’s notice.  (Which he does.)

“Marathon Man” is a flawed masterpiece.  Director John Schlesinger (former Oscar winner for directing “Midnight Cowboy”) has an incredible eye for detail.  Only Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski are equal to it.  Cinematography is by Conrad Hall, a personal favorite of mine, who won three Oscars.  (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition”.)  Film score by Michael Small was never more paranoid – it is his quintessential score.  The screenplay is by William Goldman based on his novel.  Along with “Magic”, this is Goldman’s best work.

marathon man cover 2 ‹ CrimeReads

paperback novel cover

Only in the 1970’s could “Marathon Man’ be filmed as it is – a silver age classic.

Text © 2023 – EricReports




Leave a Reply