This week we drill into the 1976 political thriller Marathon Man, with screenplay by William Goldman (based on his novel of the same name) and directed by John Schlesinger. Share your thoughts on our analysis or ask questions in the comments or on Twitter @StoryGridRT.
You can find the Foolscap Global Story Grid here (sheet 10).
Here’s a synopsis of the movie adapted from Wikipedia.
Thomas “Babe” Levy is a history PhD candidate and avid runner who is researching the same field as his father, a man who committed suicide after being investigated during the Joseph McCarthy era. Babe’s brother, Henry, also known as Doc, poses as an oil company executive but is actually a government agent working for a secret agency headed by Peter Janeway.
When the brother of a Nazi war criminal is killed in a traffic accident, Doc suspects that the criminal, Dr. Christian Szell, will come to New York to retrieve a valuable diamond collection. Doc comes to New York under the guise of a visit to Babe. Meanwhile, Babe and his new girlfriend, Elsa Opel, who claims to be from Switzerland, are mugged by two men dressed in suits. When Doc takes Babe and Elsa to lunch, he tricks Elsa into revealing she has been lying to Babe about her background.
Szell arrives in America, and Doc confronts him. Szell stabs Doc with a blade concealed up his sleeve. Doc struggles back to Babe’s apartment and dies.
The police interrogate Babe until government agents led by Janeway arrive. Janeway asks Babe what Doc told him before he died, and tells Babe that his brother was a government agent. Babe insists that his brother did not tell him anything, but Janeway is convinced Doc wouldn’t have struggled all the way to Babe’s apartment without giving him vital information.
Babe is later abducted from his apartment by the two men who mugged him in the park, and Szell tortures him. During the torture session, Szell repeatedly asks, “Is it safe?” Babe continues to deny any knowledge. Janeway rescues Babe and explains that Szell is in America to sell off a large cache of diamonds taken from Jews killed at Auschwitz. Janeway presses Babe about Doc’s dying words again, but Babe still insists he knows nothing. Frustrated with Babe’s lack of cooperation, Janeway reveals himself as a double agent and returns Babe to Szell. Szell tortures Babe again and drills into one of his healthy teeth. Babe escapes thanks to his training as a marathon runner.
Babe phones Elsa, who agrees to meet him with a car. She takes him to a country home that Babe recognizes. Babe guesses that he’s been set up and forces Elsa to reveal that the home belonged to Szell’s deceased brother. Janeway and Szell’s men arrive, but Babe takes Elsa hostage. Janeway kills Szell’s men and offers to let Babe kill Szell in revenge for Doc’s death if Janeway can have the diamonds. Babe agrees. As he leaves the house, Janeway tries to shoot him but kills Elsa instead. Babe then shoots Janeway.
Szell visits an appraiser in the Diamond District in Midtown Manhattan to determine the value of his diamond hoard. A shop assistant, who is a Holocaust survivor, recognizes Szell as a war criminal. After Szell leaves the shop, an elderly Jewish woman also recognizes him. As she tries to cross the street to get closer to Szell, she is hit by a taxi, causing a crowd to assemble to help her. Amid the confusion, the shop assistant appears again, directly confronting Szell, who slits the man’s throat.
Szell retrieves his diamonds from the safe deposit box, but as he attempts to leave, Babe forces him at gunpoint into Central Park and then into a water pump house. Babe tells Szell he can keep as many diamonds as he can swallow. Szell initially refuses, so Babe begins throwing the diamonds into the water. Szell relents and swallows one diamond, but then refuses to cooperate further. Babe throws the rest of the diamonds down the steps toward the water; Szell dives for them, but stumbles, and falls on his own knife. Babe heads out into Central Park, stopping to throw his gun into the reservoir.
The Six Core Questions
1. What’s the Global Genre?
Thriller > Political
Marathon Man’s Global Genre is external: Thriller > Political. The Global Value is Life/Death. The full range of value is Life to Unconsciousness to Death to Damnation.
The film is listed as a Thriller > Political, and it’s set up as a surviving Nazi villain versus a Jewish protagonist, but it almost feels more like a Crime story. Of course, Thriller is a blend of Horror, Crime and Action, so I could say that the Crime element feels strongest to me. What’s more, Babe tells his professor in the beginning hook that his doctoral thesis is about tyranny, and that seems like a huge clue to the genre—Tyranny to Justice is the value range of the Crime genre. I don’t know whether the gross torture by a monster of a human being are what make it a thriller.
Internal Genre: Babe goes through a decided Worldview arc, either Maturation or Disillusionment. I’d argue for the latter because he comes to doubt the integrity of both his father and his brother in the end.
There’s a minor obsession love story subplot between Babe and Elsa.
Leslie: I looked at the Core Events for Crime and Thriller and concluded this is a Thriller (Hero at the Mercy of the Villain) rather than a Crime Story (Exposing the Criminal). These are the primary facts I used:
- Szell is exposed as a criminal in the street, but not by the hero.
- Babe becomes the victim after Doc is killed, and Babe survives, so he preserves his own life (and that of any courier or unfortunate person who might get in Szell’s way in the future).
- Szell erroneously thinks Babe has some critical information passed to him in Doc’s dying words.
- Babe can’t simply walk away and let the criminal go. If Babe allows Szell to have the diamonds, he would hire new henchmen to kill Babe because his refusal to succumb to torture becomes a personal affront (and once out of the country, Szell would be untouchable).
- The fate worse than death is being tortured when you don’t have what the criminal wants and therefore can’t choose to give it to him.
2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
- An Inciting Crime indicative of a master Villain (multiple victims): The White Angel (Szell) steals diamonds from jewish people in the concentration camps.
- Speech in Praise of the Villain: The White Angel has been on the run for decades. He is so clever that no one can find him.
- The Hero/Protagonist becomes the Victim: Babe loses his brother and becomes the primary focus of Szell.
- The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain: Dentist scene. “Is it safe?” (It’s unclear what that means.)
- False Ending: The first ending is the scene at the remote cabin, and the second is the scene in the pumphouse.
Anne: I can’t be dealing with an inciting incident that’s thirty years in the past! I’d argue that the inciting incident is the car wreck that killed Szell’s brother, setting off the chain of events connecting Szell to Doc to Babe. It was coincidental in that it was random, but symbolically causal because it was set off by the Jewish driver discovering that the other driver is an anti-Semitic German, and then chasing him to their shared fiery death. Ironic vengeance.
William Devane (Janeway) gives the Speech in Praise of the Villain at about 1:17:30 while he’s fake-rescuing Dustin Hoffman. “He’s probably the wealthiest and most wanted Nazi left alive. Szell saw the end early. He snuck his brother and the diamonds out of Germany, and now they’re here in New York, and he’s coming after them. He’s going to expose himself to incredible risk.” It’s a pretty thorough description of a cold-blooded, devious and smart criminal, and Janeway even sounds admiring as he delivers it.
I’m pretty sure Szell is referring to the stash of diamonds when he says, “Is it safe?” For some reason, he believes Babe’s brother told him about before he died. Either that, or it’s a Nazi torture technique, to ask an unanswerable question till the person goes nuts. Babe escapes from the murderous band by running faster than any of them.
Leslie: I think the inciting crime (as opposed to the inciting incident for the Beginning Hook) is the bomb in France, assuming that Chen was working for Szell.
- MacGuffin (Villain’s Object of Desire): Szell wants the diamonds from the safe deposit box.
- Investigative Red Herrings (seemingly revelatory false clues that mislead the Protagonist): Janeway and Elsa are liars and working for the villain.
- Making it Personal (Villain takes the Hero’s fight as a personal affront and wants to beat the hero and inflict pain): Babe is tortured for information they assume Doc told him before he died, information about the safety of retrieving the diamonds.
- Clock (Hero has a limited time to act, and failing to act burns precious time): Babe has to hurry to catch Szell before he leaves country at 1:00 pm (but I don’t know that he knows about this clock, but the audience does).
Kim: As I watched for conventions, I wasn’t able to identify any until quite late in the story, which felt strange. There may have been red herrings, but I wasn’t sure what was being investigated, so it wasn’t clear what was meant to be misleading. The inciting crime was not clearly stated or portrayed, which feels unusual for a Thriller and definitely supports Anne’s Crime/Espionage argument. Perhaps it’s a sub-convention of a Political Thriller? Overall the conventions felt weak or subtle, which I’m not used to.
Question about red herrings: Are they for the protagonist? Or for the reader/viewer? Both? It seems as if the hero didn’t have a clue about anything until the midpoint shift, but perhaps there were other red herrings for Doc that the viewer could have experienced? The bomb in the pram perhaps?
The clock felt weak because it didn’t occur until the very end, and even then we’re not dealing with life and death, right? It’s more like justice? Can that still produce a fate worse than death? Having the two Jewish people recognize Szell was very compelling and added to urgency, but again that was for the audience’s benefit, and I suppose Szell’s, not the hero.
Leslie: I don’t think the ticking clock has to begin at a particular time, but it must be present. It’s not clear that the hero has to know there is a ticking clock, but even so, I think we can assume that Babe believes he must stop Szell before he escapes with the diamonds. I think the leap to conclude that escaped-Szell with a fortune in diamonds hiring new henchmen to kill Babe (out of caution if not for revenge) could not have escaped Babe’s notice.
3. What is the Point of View? What is the Narrative Device?
The POV is omniscient. Babe’s POV as the hero is the most prominent and drives most of the scenes, but as the typical far-flung elements of the spy-type story unfold, we experience important events through the eyes of Doc in Paris, Babe in New York, and Szell in Uruguay, with the opening scene being from the POV of Szell’s brother. The scene of Doc’s first attack is shown through the eyes of a random stranger across the street. A number of scenes felt distant-omniscient, long-lens and spy-like.
4. What are the Objects of Desire, in other words, wants and needs?
Wants: Babe Levy wants to get to the bottom of his brother’s life and death. Christian Szell wants to recover his diamonds.
Needs: Babe needs to prove his strength and determination. Szell needs to make up for his Nazi past.
5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?
The standard Controlling Idea/Theme for the Thriller varies by ending:
- Positive: Life is preserved when the Protagonist unleashes their special gift.
- Negative: Death or damnation triumphs when the Protagonist fails to unleash their special gift.
This particular political thriller seems more about justice and injustice than life and death, so it’s tempting to say “Justice prevails when a determined protagonist outruns, outwits and outlasts a devious criminal antagonist.”
Justice prevails when a determined protagonist outruns, outwits and outlasts a devious criminal antagonist.
Leslie: Babe’s running is his way of dealing with life at the beginning of the story, and a point is made that he won’t stand and fight (demonstrated in the classroom and in the way he’s taunted by neighbors, as well as mentioned by Doc). By the end of the story, he learns to stand and fight or run at the appropriate times. I think that’s his gift expressed.
What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?
This film has many layers. The subplots and Babe’s internal journey are woven into the Global Story. But, to articulate the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff, a writer should focus on the Global Story.
Beginning Hook: The Protagonist in global story is Doc. Babe’s story line is secondary
- Inciting incident: Szell’s brother dies in a car crash, destroying one of two keys to a safe deposit box.
- Progressive Complication: Doc believes that he’s losing his edge. (“I’m only the best because people think I’m the best. But I’m past it and I know it. Sooner or later, it’s going to become common knowledge.”)
- Turning Point: Szell arrives in New York and has Babe mugged. (They never involve family. It’s a violation.)
- Crisis Question: Does Doc confront Szell about attacking Babe, or not?
- Climax: Doc confronts Szell.
- Resolution: Szell stabs Doc.
On the global spectrum of value, Doc moves from damnation to death. You could argue that he shifts from life to death, but (1) Janeway admits they work for both sides (“good” and “bad”), (2) Doc transported the diamonds (even though he’s Jewish!), which means (3) he’s denied his heritage and written his father off as a drunk. Contrast this with Babe who shifts from life to unconsciousness to life.
Middle Build: The Protagonist in the global story is Babe (midpoint of film, at 60 min).
- Inciting incident: Doc dies in Babe’s apartment.
- Progressive Complication: Babe has no idea what “Is it safe?” means.
- Turning Point: Babe discovers that Elsa is in on it (90 min mark).
- Crisis Question: Will Babe kill Elsa, Janeway and the others?
- Climax: Janeway tells Babe where to find Szell. Babe walks away.
- Resolution: Elsa warns Babe that Janeway is going to kill him. Babe shoots Janeway.
- Inciting incident: Babe confronts Szell outside the bank (12 min left in the film).
- Progressive Complication: Babe tells Szell that he can keep as many of the diamonds as he can swallow.
- Turning Point: Szell swallows one diamond, then refuses to swallow more.
- Crisis Question: Will Babe kill Szell (and avenge his father’s and brother’s deaths), or not?
- Climax: Babe throws the briefcase of diamonds over the stairs.
- Resolution: In his effort to save the diamonds, Szell falls down the stairs, accidentally stabs himself and dies.
Valerie: The protagonist shifts after the BH (Hero role changes). When the film opens, Doc is the protagonist. Not much is happening in Babe’s world (externally). However, when Doc is killed, Babe is forced to deal with a situation he knows nothing about.
Leslie: I don’t see Doc as the protagonist/hero, but I do see Babe as being passive in the first half of the film and becoming active when forced to by Szell and his henchmen, which is typical before and after the midpoint.
7. Additional Story-Related Observations
Jarie: The beginning of the movie seems random. Szell’s brother gives the bandaid box from the safe deposit box to someone and then leaves and stalls his car. Some random guy chases him. Is it a coincidence? Although the old guy chase scene is pretty novel. I don’t understand the love story element either. Why did they get beat up in the park? It becomes clear later, but it seems so random. All that said, you’ve gotta love the mood music.
Anne: I think the story of Babe’s father is there to underscore Babe’s interest in tyranny and justice. His father was a victim of McCarthyism, and the entire scene with the professor (played by Fritz Weaver) serves to set that up explicitly. The love story subplot is a dumb convention, exactly like in The Verdict: Hero falls for pretty woman who, of course, betrays him to the enemy then repents too late. The femme fatale. Bleh.
Babe Levy is inspired to persevere in his running by Ethiopian Olympic marathon champion Abebe Bikila, who famously ran barefoot. The Olympic footage used in the movie feels highly symbolic, but on examination doesn’t really hold up as such.
The scene of Janeway driving like a crazy person while praising the villain and explaining the whole plot to Dustin Hoffman in the back seat was surprisingly awkward and almost comic in effect. I’ve seen it parodied.
The conversation over a meal scene is one we studied at our Story Grid training. This movie innovates the scene type by using it to demonstrate family conflict and economic differences, build up the three characters, and set up an antagonist.
Valerie: About the meal scene, agreed. Also, it’s entirely subtext. Both Doc and Babe have agendas. In fact, Elsa has an agenda of her own, but that isn’t as obvious to the audience at this point in the story. It’s a great example of how a scene that is relevant to a subplot can drive the global story. It also uses exposition as ammunition and both kinds of turning points. The scene is turned actively because Doc is setting Elsa up. The revelation is that Elsa is German. This is a story that requires very careful examination.
Leslie: We’ve noted when studying other movies (e.g., Jane Got a Gun and Jack the Giant Slayer) that changes in key personnel shortly before or during filming can create problems. The ending of Marathon Man was rewritten by Robert Towne. Some scenes were cut (for violence) after previews, including the scene that explains why Doc goes to such lengths to reach Babe before he dies. I think these changes affected the Global Story and caused some scenes to feel odd or unsatisfying.
Roger Ebert’s review of the film makes sense in light of some of these head-scratching moments in a film with great performances (Roy Scheider and Laurence Olivier were amazing): “If holes in plots bother you, Marathon Man will be maddening. But as well-crafted escapist entertainment, as a diabolical thriller, the movie works with relentless skill.”