The film was a critical and box office success, with Olivier earning a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his role as the film's antagonist.
Thomas "Babe" Levy (Hoffman) is a history Ph.D. candidate and avid runner researching the same field as his father, who committed suicide after being investigated during the Joseph McCarthy era. Babe's brother, Henry (Scheider), known as "Doc", poses as an oil company executive but is actually a government agent working for a secret agency headed by Peter Janeway (Devane).
When the brother of a Nazi war criminal is killed in a traffic accident, Doc suspects that the criminal, Dr. Christian Szell (Olivier), 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 (Keller), 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 that she has been lying to Babe about her background. Though Doc suspects she may be connected to Szell, he tells Babe that she is seeking an American husband so that she can become a U.S. citizen. After Szell arrives in America, Doc confronts him stating he is not welcome in the country. Szell accepts the pronouncement, but then stabs Doc with a blade concealed in his sleeve. Doc makes it 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 U.S. government agent. Babe insists that his brother did not tell him anything, but Janeway is convinced Doc would not 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 he is tortured by Szell. During his torture, Babe is repeatedly asked "Is it safe?" but continues to deny any knowledge. Babe is then rescued by Janeway, who explains that Szell is in America to sell off a large cache of diamonds which he had taken from Jews killed at Auschwitz. Janeway presses Babe about Doc's dying words, but Babe still insists he knows nothing. Frustrated, Janeway reveals himself as a double agent and returns Babe to Szell. Still unable to extract anything from Babe, Szell drills into one of his healthy teeth. Babe eventually escapes, aided by his skills as a marathon runner.
Babe phones Elsa, who agrees to meet him with a car. Arriving at a country home, Babe guesses that Elsa has set him up, forcing her to confess that the home was owned by 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, but as he leaves, Janeway tries to shoot Babe, but kills Elsa instead. Babe then shoots Janeway.
Attempting to determine the value of his diamonds, Szell visits an appraiser in the Diamond District in midtown Manhattan. A shop assistant who is a Holocaust survivor believes he recognizes Szell as a war criminal. After Szell hurriedly leaves the shop, an elderly Jewish woman also recognizes him. Trying to cross the street to get closer to Szell, the woman is hit by a taxi, causing a crowd to assemble to aid her. Amidst the confusion, the shop assistant appears again, directly confronting Szell, who slits the man's throat.
Szell retrieves his diamonds but, as he attempts to leave, Babe forces him at gunpoint into Central Park. Babe tells Szell he can keep as many diamonds as he can swallow. Szell initially refuses, and 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 towards the water; Szell dives for them, but stumbles, and falls on his own knife blade. Babe heads out into Central Park, stopping to throw his gun into the reservoir.Dustin Hoffman as Thomas Babington "Babe" Levy
Laurence Olivier as Dr. Christian Szell
Roy Scheider as Henry "Doc" Levy
William Devane as Peter Janeway
Marthe Keller as Elsa Opel
Richard Bright as Karl
Marc Lawrence as Erhardt
Tito Goya as Melendez
Fritz Weaver as Professor Biesenthal
Jacques Marin as LeClerc
Goldman was paid a reported $500,000 for the film rights to his novel and to do a screenplay, before the novel had been published. "The book reads like the movie-movie of all time," said producer Robert Evans. "I regard it as a cheap investment because you don't often find books that translate into film. This is the best thing I've read since The Godfather.It could go all, all the way – if we don't foul it up in the making."
Goldman estimated he did four versions of the screenplay and says Robert Towne was brought in at the end.
Goldman says John Schlesinger only agreed to do the film because he had just finished The Day of the Locust and was "terrified he was dead in Hollywood."
Laurence Olivier was cast early on. However he had health issues and at one stage it was uncertain whether he would be able to do the film. Richard Widmark auditioned for the part, but Olivier eventually recovered and was able to participate in filming.
Marathon Man was the second feature film production in which inventor/operator Garrett Brown used his then-new Steadicam, after Bound for Glory. However, it was the first feature using the Steadicam that saw theatrical release, predating the premieres of both Bound for Glory and Rocky by two months. This new camera stabilization system was used extensively in Marathon Man's running and chase scenes on the streets of New York City.
The movie was filmed from September 1975 to January 1976.
Marathon Man is famous in acting circles for an often quoted and misquoted exchange between Hoffman and Olivier concerning a perceived difference in their approaches to acting. Hoffman later set the record straight in a retrospective interview, explaining:
When we got back to Los Angeles [Olivier] said, "How did your week go, dear boy?" And I told him we did this scene where the character I was playing was supposed to be up for three days. He says, "So what did you do?" I say, "Well I stayed up for three days and three nights." And [Olivier's] famous line was, "Why don't you just try acting?" ... It became kind of legend. It's been quoted so many times, at least in the acting circles. And the truth is I was the first one to quote that line ... They leave out the reality and just put in what feels more provocative or a better story. And what accompanied him saying "Why don't you just try acting?" ... He laughed, because he said, you know, "I'm one to talk." And then he was actually the first one that told me about risking his life every night jumping whatever it was twenty feet in the last act of Hamlet. And the truth of it is I didn't just stay up three days and three nights for the scene; it was a good excuse, because these were the days of wine and roses in Studio 54.
The film explores themes of endurance and the pursuit of Nazi war criminals. Some critics believed that the violence exhibited was necessary to the film and to the character of Babe. Other critics found the violence to be offensive. Critic Pauline Kael considered the film a "Jewish revenge fantasy".
Babe originally has childish traits. As the film progresses, these childish traits are replaced with more adult ones. Michelle Citron of Jump Cut compared Babe to Carrie White in the 1976 film Carrie.
John Schlesinger asked composer Michael Small to make music that matched the theme of "pain, and the endurance of pain".
The film was a financial and critical success. Olivier's performance was particularly praised: he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and he won a Golden Globe in the same category.
Roger Ebert gave Marathon Man 3 out of a possible 4 stars. He wrote: "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." Rotten Tomatoes ranks the film at 80%, with 35 reviews.
Dr. Szell was ranked as villain #34 on the American Film Institute's "100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains" list. The film itself was ranked #50 on the "100 Years...100 Thrills" list. He was also ranked in Time as one of the 25 greatest movie villains. Both the novel and film contain a graphic depiction in which Szell tortures Babe by first probing a cavity in one of Babe's teeth with a curette, and later drilling into another tooth, without anesthetic, while repeatedly asking the question "Is it safe?" The quote "Is it safe?" was ranked #70 on the "100 Years...100 Movie Quotes" list. The dental torture scene was named #66 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments. The torture scene has been described as one of the most frightening sequences in film. Critics have remarked on the high level of talent and classiness.
Director Schlesinger said that Marathon Man was successful not only because it had elements of escapism, but also because the audience easily identified with Babe Levy. Schlesinger said that he "is definitely someone that you can root for. The film is about his survival in a grim and hostile world. In our present age of anxiety we can all identify with characters who are not trying to get ahead but simply to survive."
Although the first preview of the movie was successful, the second one in San Francisco did not go well. The audience complained about all the violent scenes, so director John Schlesinger and editor Jim Clark chose to delete the following scenes and shots: the scene near the beginning of the film in which Doc fights with two assassins who have killed his friend; the graphic and gory close-ups of Szell disemboweling Doc with his wrist blade; and both of the torture scenes, which were heavily cut. Graphic insert shots from the torture scenes, which were filmed by Clark, were removed. Some photos, such as original lobby cards and stills, show Szell torturing Babe longer with dental instruments in the first torture scene and actual onscreen drilling of Babe's tooth in second torture scene.
An 8½-minute sequence was shot of Doc fighting with some men who kill a spy colleague of his. William Goldman speculated that the scene was cut because of its violence and called the cut "grievous" and to the detriment of the film. With the sequence missing, Doc's character seems to be less flawed than he really is.
The ending was rewritten by Robert Towne because, it has been speculated, Hoffman was unhappy with it. Goldman told an interviewer he thought the new, more famous ending was "shit" because it left out two important plot clarifications. The final confrontation between Babe and Szell, in particular, is changed: in the film, Babe "spares" Szell in a pump room, tries forcing him to swallow his diamonds and Szell then falls on his own retractable blade, dying. In the novel, Babe resolutely leads Szell to Central Park and shoots him multiple times, subsequently lecturing him. He then throws the diamonds away and is quietly led away by a policeman.